People join hands during a prayer at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday. (MARVIN GENTRY/REUTERS)

Hundreds of people, black and white, many holding hands, filled an Alabama church that was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan 50 years ago Sunday to mark the anniversary of the blast, which killed four girls and became a landmark moment in the civil rights struggle.

The Rev. Arthur Price taught the same Sunday-school lesson that members of the 16th Street Baptist Church heard the morning of the bombing — “A Love That Forgives.” Then, the rusty old church bell was tolled four times as the girls’ names were read.

Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the blast but lost her sister and her right eye, stood by as members laid a wreath at the spot where the dynamite device was placed along an outside wall.

Rudolph was 12 at the time, and her family left the church after the bombing. She said it was important to return in memory of her sister, Addie Mae Collins, who was 14, and the three other girls who died: Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley Morris, both 14, and Denise McNair, 11.

“God spared me to live and tell just what happened on that day,” said Rudolph, who testified against the Klansmen convicted years later in the bombing.

Congregation members and visitors sang the old hymn “Love Lifted Me” and joined hands in prayer. The somber lesson was followed by a raucous worship service with gospel music and believers waving their hands.

During the sermon, the Rev. Julius Scruggs of Huntsville, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, said, “God said you may murder four little girls, but you won’t murder the dream of justice and liberty for all.”

Later Sunday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and others were set to attend a commemoration. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native who went to school with McNair, was among the scheduled speakers.

The dynamite bomb went off outside the church on Sept. 15, 1963. Of the Klansmen convicted years later, one remains imprisoned. Two others who were convicted died in prison.

Two young men, both black, were shot to death in Birmingham in the chaos that followed the bombing.

Birmingham was strictly segregated at the time of the bombing, which occurred as city schools were being racially integrated for the first time. The all-black 16th Street Baptist was a gathering spot for civil rights demonstrations for months before the blast.

The bombing became a powerful symbol of the depth of racial hatred in the South and helped build momentum for later laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During the commemoration, an honor guard made up of black and white police officers and firefighters watched over ceremonies with a mixed-race crowd, something unthinkable in Birmingham in 1963. That year, white police officers and firefighters used dogs and water hoses on black demonstrators marching for equal rights.

The Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., noted the changed city in a prayer.

“We thank you father for the tremendous progress we have made in 50 years, that we can sit in the safe confines of this sanctuary being protected by the city of Birmingham, when 50 years ago the city turned its eye and its ears away from us,” she said.

— Associated Press