People surround "The Four Little Girls", a sculpture memorial honoring Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley in Birmingham, Ala. Saturday Sept. 14, 2013. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Church bombing. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Hundreds of people black and white, many holding hands, filled an Alabama church that was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan 50 years ago Sunday 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 the morning of the bombing - "A Love That Forgives." Then, the rusty old church bell was tolled four times as the girls' names were read.
Bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost her right eye and sister Addie Mae Collins in the blast, stood by as members laid a wreath at the spot where the dynamite device was placed along an outside wall.
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 other girls 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 Rudolph, who testified against the Klansmen convicted years later in the bombing.
Congregation members and visitors sang the old hymn "Love Lifted Me" and joined hands in prayer. The somber Sunday school lesson was followed by a raucous, packed worship service with gospel music and believers waving their hands.
During the sermon, the Rev. Julius Scruggs of Huntsville, 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."
Later Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder and others were set to attend a commemoration. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native who went to school with McNair, was among the scheduled speakers.
The dynamite bomb went off outside the church Sept. 15, 1963. Of the Klansmen convicted years later, one remains imprisoned. Two others convicted died in prison.
Two young men, both black, were shot to death in Birmingham in the chaos that followed the bombing.
Birmingham was strictly segregated at the time of the bombing, which occurred as city schools were being racially integrated for the first time. The all-black 16th Street Baptist was a gathering spot for civil rights demonstrations for months before the blast.