BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Hundreds of people — black and white, many holding hands — filled an Alabama church bombed by the Ku Klux Klan 50 years ago today to mark the anniversary of the blast that killed four little girls and became a landmark moment in the civil rights struggle.
The Rev. Arthur Price taught the same Sunday School lesson that members of 16th Street Baptist Church heard that morning: “A Love That Forgives.”
Then the rusty old church bell tolled four times as the girls’ names were read.
Bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost an eye and sister Addie Mae Collins in the blast, stood as a wreath was placed where dynamite exploded along an outside wall.
Ms. Rudolph was 12 at the time, and her family left the church after the bombing. She said it was important to return in memory of her sister, who was 14, and the three others who died: Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley Morris, both 14, and Denise McNair, 11.
“God spared me to live and tell just what happened on that day,” said Ms. Rudolph, who testified against the Klansmen convicted years later in the bombing.
Congregation members and visitors sang “Love Lifted Me” and joined hands in prayer. The Sunday School lesson was followed by a raucous, packed worship service.
During the sermon, the Rev. Julius Scruggs of Huntsville, Ala., president of the National Baptist Convention USA, said, “God said you may murder four little girls, but you won’t murder the dream of justice and liberty for all.”
Those at an afternoon event included Attorney General Eric Holder, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, ex-U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, and director Spike Lee, who made a documentary about the bombing.
The church was full. The only surviving mother of one of the girls, Maxine McNair, sat in the front row.
Mr. Holder called the girls’ deaths “a seminal and tragic moment” in U.S. history and recalled gains that followed their killings, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Alluding to the Supreme Court decision this year that struck down a key part of the voting law, he said the struggle continues decades later.
The dynamite went off outside the church Sept. 15, 1963.
Of the Klansmen convicted years later, one remains imprisoned. Two others died in prison.
Two young men, both black, were shot to death in Birmingham in the chaos after the bombing.
Birmingham was strictly segregated at the time. The bombing occurred as city schools were being racially integrated for the first time.
The all-black 16th Street Baptist Church was a gathering spot for civil rights rallies before the blast. The attack symbolized the depth of racial hatred in the South and helped build momentum for civil rights legislation.
In Sunday’s morning ceremony, an honor guard of black and white officers and firefighters watched over the tributes with a mixed-race crowd, something unthinkable in Birmingham in 1963.
Back then, white police officers and firefighters used dogs and water hoses on black demonstrators marching for equal rights.
President Obama noted in a statement that earlier this year, the four girls were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. “That horrific day in Birmingham, Alabama quickly became a defining moment for the civil rights movement. It galvanized Americans all across the country to stand up for equality and broadened support for a movement that would eventually lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he said.
The Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted the changed city in a prayer.
“We thank you, Father, for the tremendous progress we have made in 50 years, that we can sit in the safe confines of this sanctuary being protected by the city of Birmingham, when 50 years ago the city turned its eye and its ears away from us,” she said.