President Barack Obama signed a bill into law on Friday granting the United States' highest civilian honor to four black girls killed in a civil rights-era church bombing that shocked the nation in 1963.
Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and 11-year-old Denise McNair, who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The girls' deaths at the height of conflict over the end to segregation were instrumental the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
"They gave their all," said U.S. Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and influential civil rights leader.
"This medal will serve as a compelling reminder of the sacrifices so many freedom fighters made to help us achieve equality and social change," Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, and one of the bill's sponsors, said in a statement.
In 1963, Alabama was the center of a non-violent civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and others that was met with violence from the Ku Klux Klan and state and local officials trying to enforce racial segregation laws.
"The civil rights victories were achieved by the principles of non-violence. Love carried the day against hate," Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, who also sponsored the bill.
Scheduled to attend the White House signing ceremony were Birmingham Mayor William Bell and Doug Jones, a former prosecutor who finally brought the last two church bombers to justice in 2001 and 2002. Also attending were family members of Denise McNair and Carole Robertson.
"We feel that this honor given by Congress means that our great country recognizes the sacrifices made for freedom in our country," Lisa McNair, the 49-year-old sister of Denise McNair, told Reuters.
The families of Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley have criticized the medals as useless symbolism for families who received little compensation for an atrocious act.
"They were murdered. I am not going to go get the Congressional Medal until justice has been fulfilled. I want restitution," Sarah Collins Rudolph told Reuters.
She was the fifth girl in the church bathroom where the four were killed. She survived, but still suffers from her injuries. She has asked for $5 million in compensation as a victim of terrorism.
The medals are to be awarded at a Congressional ceremony later this year and will be displayed in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
(Reporting by Verna Gates; editing by Jackie Frank)