Maxine and Jewell "Chris" McNair and their daughter Lisa McNair greet well wishers following the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday. The McNairs lost their daughter, Denise, in the Birmingham church bombing. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A bi-partisan group of lawmakers joined veterans of the Civil Rights movement on Tuesday to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the “four little girls” killed in an Alabama church bombing nearly 50 years ago.

The deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and the memories of the girls sparked raw emotions at the Statuary Hall ceremony. The event came five days before the 50th anniversary of the morning bombing inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

“Some would call this closure, today they will call it a ceremony, I will call it just love,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who paused and wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke. “Love saw us through this and will see us through the trials that we all face. Pour out that thimble of wisdom Dr. King used in his eulogy from the prophet Isaiah: and a little child shall lead them.”

Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) a native of Selma and the first African American female elected to Congress from Alabama, worked with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and other Republican colleagues from Alabama to get the legislation through Congress. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Rep. John Conyers (D-Mi.) and other veteran Congressional Black Caucus members sat quietly and watched as Republicans offered glowing tributes to the Civil Rights movement.

“I was in Alabama 50 years ago, 60 miles from Birmingham, in Tuscaloosa when we heard the news,” Selby said. “We knew then that it was a shameful act, a tragic day, we couldn’t believe it happened but it did, but it awakened the consciousness of not only Alabama but the whole nation.”

Sarah Collins Rudolph, the only survivor from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, recalls the horrific day 50 years ago. She was 12 years old on the day of the bombing and lost her sister. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)

Lewis said: “I think that it was fitting and appropriate that Congress paused and honored these four little girls. Sometimes it takes a crisis and suffering and pain to bring people together.”

During the ceremony the families of the four little girls were asked to stand. They included McNair’s parents; the sister of Carole Robertson, Dianne Braddock, a retired  Prince Georges County elementary school principal; and Sarah Collins Rudolph,  Ada Mae’s sister who lost her eye and suffered other injuries during the bombing.

Braddock said she was encouraged by the bipartisan spirit in Congress. “It was beautiful  how they worked together to pass this bill,” said Braddock .

Rudolph received thunderous applause as she was recognized as the only surviving victim of the attack.

“It made me feel very happy to hear all of the words that they spoke today,” Rudolph said. “It was very heart felt.  All of the speakers really spoke good about Cynthia,  Carole, Denise and my sister Addie, it just was a great honor to be here and see the Gold medal and I just thank God for this day.”

And even though she was injured and her sister died in the bombing, Rudolph said “ I had to forgive those people. Holding hate on the inside only keeps you sick and angry.”