A ceremony Saturday marking a seminal event in the U.S. civil rights movement _ a church bombing that killed four black girls _ drew native daughter Condoleezza Rice, a friend of one of the victims.
In a park across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the murders took place in 1963, the secretary of state said that the act of terror _ coming less than three weeks after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech _ was meant to "shatter our dreams. It was meant to say we couldn't rise up."
Even though the four girls were denied a chance to grow up, "in their deaths they represent the very tragedy to triumph that we are celebrating because we were not denied," said Rice, the highest-ranking black official in the U.S. government.
Bronze plaques featuring likenesses of the four girls, including Rice's friend Denise McNair, were unveiled. Among the estimated 200 people who attended the ceremony were city officials and family members of the girls as well as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who is accompanying Rice on her two-day homecoming tour.
The Alabama church murders sparked outrage throughout the United States and around the world and provided a catalyst for passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill in 1964 and a voting rights bill a year later. Today, blacks dominate Birmingham's political leadership.
Afterward, Rice and her party were driven to Tuscaloosa, 50 miles (80 kilometers) away, to attend a football game between Alabama's Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers.
Rice had made her sympathies known while visiting the Alabama campus on Friday. "The Tide is going to roll, roll, roll!" she told several hundred cheering fans during a speech.
Rice spent her first 13 years in Alabama, and her 55-hour homecoming visit, which ends Sunday, has brought back a flood of memories.
On Friday, for the first time in 39 years, she entered the Brunetta C. Hill Elementary School, where she was a pupil from grades 4-6. She seemed delighted that she could still remember the location of her classrooms and the library in the aging two-story building.
It was a happy time for the piano-playing youngster but a period thick with racial tensions. Rice said Friday that Birmingham "has come a long way _ light years _ from when I lived here."
Rice drew a link between Birmingham's successes and the problems she monitors daily in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Only with democracy is there hope for a better day, she said.
She said the city might not have escaped its racist ways were it not for democratic institutions that enabled compromise to prevail over conflict.
"At one point, not that long ago, the promise of democracy seemed distant here in Alabama and throughout the American South," she said in her Tuscaloosa speech.
"But when impatient patriots in this country finally demanded their freedom and their rights, what once seemed impossible suddenly became inevitable," she said. "So it was in America. So it was in much of the world. And so it will be in the Middle East.", AP reported. V.A.