By Verna Gates
(Reuters) - Four Alabama girls killed 50 years ago in a church bombing that galvanized the civil rights movement were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Tuesday, the highest honor the nation's leaders can bestow on civilians.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, a Ku Klux Klan bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.
The crime at the height of the conflict over ending segregation shocked the nation, sparking the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
"The senseless deaths of these children awakened the slumbering conscience of the nation," Representative Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, said at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. "They now take their rightful place as civil rights heroines."
The ceremony took place beneath a bronze statue of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama bus for a white passenger in 1955 sparked a boycott that energized the civil rights movement.
Tuesday's ceremony, five days before the 50th anniversary of the church bombing, was attended by the children's families, congressional leaders and Alabama dignitaries.
Three Klansmen were convicted in the murders, two of whom died in prison. A fourth suspect in the bombing died before charges could be filed.
In 1963, Birmingham became the epicenter for the non-violent civil rights movement. Local leaders invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead protests against discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws that prevented blacks from using public facilities such as water fountains, restrooms, dining areas and hotels.
The marches were met with violence from the local police, state troopers and Ku Klux Klan members.
Among those in attendance at the Gold Medal ceremony were Doug Jones, a former prosecutor who brought two of the church bombers to justice, and Chris McNair, father of victim Denise McNair.
The medal was presented to Lawrence Pijeaux, chief executive officer of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where the medal will be displayed.
"I pledge to treasure it along with the lives it represents," Pijeaux said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Tim Gaynor)