Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ Members of Congress on Friday honored four black girls at the Alabama church where they died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing 50 years ago, calling their deaths a catalyst for change that still reverberates.

About a dozen representatives, mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, applauded families of the girls during a commemoration at 16th Street Baptist Church.

A college choir sang “We Shall Overcome,” and Rep. John Lewis _ a civil rights organizer at the time of the bombing _ recalled crying as he saw the shattered building for the first time after the bombing.

“Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb went off in this church and tore the essence of our hearts,” said Lewis, D-Ga., a native of southeast Alabama.

Civil rights marches and other demonstrations continued despite the bombing, in Selma and Mississippi, Lewis said, and landmark civil rights and voting rights laws followed.

“That was a sad and dark time not just for Birmingham, not just for the families, not just for the members of this church, but for the nation and for the world,” Lewis said. “But we didn’t give up, we didn’t give in.”

Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was critically injured in the bombing but survived, smiled shyly as she accepted a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal approved for the girls earlier this year.

The medal was struck with an image of Rudolph’s sister, Addie Mae Collins, and the three other girls who died on one side; an image of the church is on the other.

Rep. Terri Sewell, a black Democrat from Birmingham who spearheaded the legislation approving the medal with Rep. Spencer Bachus, a white Republican from suburban Vestavia Hills, said the honor befits the girls’ sacrifice.

“Fifty years later, justice delayed but justice not denied,” said Sewell.

The church was an organizing spot for civil rights demonstrations, and a dynamite bomb planted outside went off as Birmingham’s public schools were being racially integrated for the first time.

Collins and two other 14-year-olds were killed, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Wesley also was known as Cynthia Morris.

The bomb also killed 11-year-old Denise McNair, whose mother, Maxine, waved to applause as she entered the sanctuary in a wheelchair.

The congressional visit was part of five days of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

A sculpture with likenesses of the four girls will be unveiled in a park across an intersection from the church on Saturday, and comedian Bill Cosby will lead a discussion on education and entrepreneurship.

On Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. Robert Bentley, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice _ who grew up in Birmingham and knew Denise McNair _ are scheduled to attend an anniversary commemoration after morning worship at the church.