WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama awarded the highest U.S. civilian honor on Friday to four black girls killed in a civil rights-era church bombing 50 years ago, saying their tragic deaths ultimately "helped to trigger triumph."
In a signing ceremony at the White House, marking what he described as "a great moment," Obama 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 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
"That tragic loss, that heartbreak helped to trigger triumph, and a more just and equal and fair America," Obama said
The girls' deaths at the height of conflict over the end to racial segregation were instrumental to the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
"To the families that are here, those who lost daughters, sisters, we just want to express incredible thanks not only for the strength you showed in suffering, but also for your persistence in making sure that we remember those sacrifices," the president said.
In 1963, Alabama was the center of a non-violent civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others that was met with violence from the Ku Klux Klan and state and local officials trying to enforce racial segregation laws.
Those attending the White House ceremony included Birmingham Mayor William Bell and Doug Jones, a former prosecutor who finally brought the last two church bombers to justice in 2001 and 2002.
"We have here a prosecutor who was able to make sure that justice eventually was delivered even if several decades after the fact," Obama said in a tribute to Jones.
Family members of Denise McNair and Carole Robertson also attended.
"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.
(Reporting by Verna Gates and Jeff Mason; Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara)