Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski is pictured at age 13 in Birmingham, Ala. (Handout photo / July 11, 1997)

Fifty years ago, Freeman A. Hrabowski III was in a Sunday church service in Birmingham, Ala. when someone handed his pastor a note containing horrifying news — a sister church, 16th Street Baptist, had just been bombed.

The pastor stopped the service and told the terrified black congregation what happened, Hrabowski said. A collective gasp went up. "We knew them," said Hrabowski, who was 13 at the time. "They were us."

Instead of panicking, the congregants calmly remained in their pews and prayed for peace, "and for the hearts of the men who had such hatred," he said.

Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an influential educator, reflected Sunday on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Birmingham church. The blast killed four young girls and shocked the country, adding urgency and momentum to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Hrabowski said the event inspired him to devote his life to educating young people.

"That tragedy pricked the conscience of America," he said. "America could no longer sit by and say 'that's how the world is.'"

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. the nation's first black attorney general, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had been a childhood playmate of one of the victims, spoke at a ceremony Sunday in Birmingham focusing on the progress in race relations in the decades since and looking at the challenges that remain.

Holder said that the focus on civil rights had echoed far beyond race relations.

"The civil rights movement impacted women's rights, Hispanics, and gays and lesbians," he said. "Civil rights are going to be more broadly defined, it isn't just a black-and-white issue in the 21st century."

At 10:22 a.m. on September 15, 1963, hundreds of people were in the 16th Street Baptist Church awaiting the start of the 11 a.m. service. The box of dynamite, planted by the Ku Klux Klan, killed four girls — Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. More than a dozen were injured in the blast.

At the ceremony held on Sunday in Birmingham, the bell at the repaired church tolled again at 10:22 a.m. in remembrance of the four girls.

The bell and a church service in which the Gospel text included the exhortation to "love your enemies" — the same verses read 50 years ago — started a day of activities throughout the city remembering the tragedy and celebrating the 1964 act that resulted from it.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender also brought an end to the Jim Crow laws that had enforced rigid segregation practices across much of the southeastern United States.

In the early 1960s, Birmingham was brimming with racial turmoil inflamed by a court-ordered desegregation plan. Earlier in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested there while leading a demonstration against segregation.

King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," along with images of police brutality against protesters in Birmingham, helped build sympathy and support for the civil rights movement. Hrabowski was also arrested in demonstrations earlier that year and was jailed for five days.

Hrabowski attended the funeral days later for three of the girls at his church, Sixth Street Baptist. Cynthia Wesley, one of the victims, had been a high-school classmate of his. King also spoke at the funeral for the girls, which was attended by white people, the first time Hrabowski had seen other races in his church.

King told the parents and others attending the funeral that "life is as hard as steel," something Hrabowski recalled as a "very powerful metaphor."

Hrabowski said that at the time of the funeral, black people in Birmingham were still reeling from the incident, with some wondering whether it could have been avoided had they not fought for racial equality.

"We didn't know who was going to be bombed next," he said. Hrabowski would go on to have nightmares for years after the bombings, and said he only became comfortable talking about it decades later.

The experience "gave me a special sensitivity to those who are vulnerable," Hrabowski said. "It made me even more determined to do well in school, and quite frankly to devote my life to educating children, to educating young people. The better educated the young person, the more opportunities that person has."

The last surviving bomber, 83-year-old Thomas Blanton, sits alone in a prison cell not far from Birmingham. Since his 2001 conviction, his list of visitors has dwindled to his daughter and a few other infrequent visitors, said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Blanton still shows no remorse, said Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry years after the bombings. Robert Chambliss was also convicted in the bombing, while another suspect, Herman Frank Cash, had already died when prosecutions began.

Celebrated as martyrs in the history of civil rights, the four bombing victims were honored earlier in the week with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed on civilians.

At that ceremony was Laurel resident Dianne Braddock, sister of Carole Robertson, according to The Washington Post. Braddock traveled from Maryland to Birmingham to take part in the anniversary ceremonies on Sunday.

"My family carried a heavy burden for years. It's the type of pain that will never go away," Braddock said earlier this week, according to the Post. "In those days blacks and whites lived in a different world, we didn't associate with each other. Today there is new awareness between blacks and whites."

Hrabowski said that though the country has made progress in ending racial discrimination, he believes more can be done to ensure poor children of all races have access to educational advancement, and to end racism.

"We are far better today, but we still have to keep working to help people understand each other so there won't be that hatred," he said. "The lesson is we don't want those girls' lives to be in vain."

The Washington Post contributed to this article.

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