WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama signed legislation Friday to award Congress' highest civilian honor to four girls killed in an Alabama church bombing during the civil rights movement. He called it a tragic loss that "helped to trigger triumph and a more just and equal and fair America."
The Congressional Gold Medal will go to Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair.
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Addie Mae, Carole and Cynthia, all 14, and Denise, 11, were killed when a bomb planted by white supremacists exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963. Twenty-two others were injured.
Denise's mother and sister, and Carole's sister were among those who stood around Obama's desk in the Oval Office as he signed the bill.
"For us to be able to be in this Oval Office with so many people who have worked hard to make this day possible, and understanding that that tragic loss, that heartbreak helped to trigger triumph and a more just and equal and fair America, that's an incredible thing for us to be able to participate in," he said.
September will mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing, which helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Three Ku Klux Klan members were convicted of the bombing years after the attack. Two are dead and one is in prison.
While Congress widely embraced awarding the medal, the idea has divided the victims' relatives.
Some are supportive while others say they would prefer financial compensation and have little interest in the award.
Sisters of Denise and Carole sat in the House gallery during the debate and vote on the measure. Relatives of Addie Mae and Cynthia, also known as Cynthia Morris, have said they aren't interested in a medal. Addie Mae's sister lost an eye in the bombing.
Also present for the bill-signing was Attorney General Eric Holder and his wife, Sharon Malone. Her late sister, Vivian Malone Jones, was one of the first black students to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1963 in defiance of racial segregation.
Reps. Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Spencer Bachus, a Republican, led the Alabama congressional delegation's efforts to honor the bombing victims. They represent adjoining Birmingham districts in Congress.
Past recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include George Washington, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King.