President Obama signs a bill Friday in the Oval Office commemorating the lives of the four young girls killed in the 1963 church bombing. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

“Four little girls” received in death Friday one of the country’s highest civilian awards, as the nation’s first African American president honored some of the youngest victims in the historic fight for equal rights.

In the Oval Office, President Obama signed a bill designating the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls killed on Sept. 15, 1963, when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by a group of Ku Klux Klan members.

The girls’ names were Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14. They died inside their Sunday school classrooms when dynamite, set to explode by a timer, blew up the African American church.

The attack that killed the girls and injured 22 other churchgoers marked a turning point in the American struggle for civil rights. Propelled in part by public outrage over the bombing, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act the next year.

Obama has often spoken gratefully about those who participated in the civil rights movement, acknowledging that he probably would not have been elected president without the risks they took in pursuit of equal rights.

He did so again Friday. “This is a great privilege for me,” Obama said, signing the bill into law as relatives of the slain girls watched.

The House and Senate passed the bill in recent weeks , with the 50th anniversary of the attack only a few months away. Many former civil rights leaders, as well as politicians and others, plan to mark the occasion with ceremonies in Birmingham.

This year, Sept. 15 falls on a Sunday.

The killing of the four little girls, as they became known, came as the conflict over desegregation was escalating across the South.

The 16th Street Baptist Church was a hub for civil rights activists in the city, and a meeting place for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other movement leaders.

At the time of the bombing, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality had become involved in an effort to register the city’s black voters, stirring violent opposition.

“That tragic loss, that heartbreak, helped to trigger triumph and a more just and equal and fair America,” Obama said of the girls’ deaths.

The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the nation’s highest civilian honors and is awarded annually by Congress.

Golfing pro Arnold Palmer and global economist Muhammad Yunus are the most recent recipients. Other civil rights leaders have received the award, including King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, baseball great Jackie Robinson and the Tuskegee Airmen.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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