Birmingham Civil Rights Icon Leaves A Legacy Of True Anti-Racism
It was Sunday School hour at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when Chris and his brother Harold McNair heard a loud “boom.”
“Was that thunder?” Chris asked his brother on that cloudy day.
“No,” Harold said.
It was 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, September 15, 1963, and a dynamite bomb had just ripped a giant hole through brick and masonry wall at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, 25 blocks away, where Chris’s daughter, Denise, had gone with her mother to celebrate Youth Sunday.
St. Paul Pastor Joseph Ellwanger got a phone call and immediately the McNairs raced toward the historic downtown church, the center of the civil rights movement and now the target of evil carnage.
Denise was one of four girls killed that day while preparing for worship, by a bomb that shattered the church, the city, state, and nation, and the lives of their parents. “I saw a little foot sticking out from under the sheet,” Chris recalled at the hospital where the girls were taken. “And a scratched patent leather shoe covered with dust. I suppose every little girl’s foot looks about the same, but I knew it was Denise’s” he said, adding that a piece of cement was lodged in her head.
Last Friday, the McNair family, friends, business owners, city and state elected leaders, and clergy filled the sanctuary at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to celebrate the life and legacy of Chris McNair, who died at home on May 8. He was 93.
Known for his call for restraint and human dignity in the days after the violent tragedy, McNair led efforts to help bring healing to the city, then referred to as “Bombingham,” and lived with hope during the long journey of 26 years to justice.
The horror of that day still resonates at this landmark historic church. At the door of the sanctuary is a National Park Service plaque, designating it on the National Register of Historic Places, and commemorating “its role in the country’s history” as a staging ground for youth marches in the civil rights movement and for the bomb that killed four young girls, “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
Across the street in Kelly Ingram Park stands “Four Spirits,” a life-sized sculpture of the four girls killed that day: Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carolyn Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. In the church basement, the 1963 clock hangs with the time 10:22 permanently marked by the bomb’s blast.
McNair’s Life Story
McNair was born on November 22, 1925, in Fordyce, Arkansas, the oldest of 12 children. He attended Tuskegee Institute, where he met his wife, Maxine Pippen, and served in the Army during World War II. The couple eventually moved to her hometown of Birmingham with their only child then, Denise. McNair delivered milk for White Dairy before teaching at a local high school. In 1962, he opened a photography studio, and was one of the first African-American professional photographers in the city.
He won a seat in the Alabama legislature in 1973 and was among the first black representatives elected since Reconstruction, ultimately serving two terms. In 1986, he was elected as a Jefferson County commissioner, serving for 15 years. That service was marred by a corruption charge involving contractors for a sewer expansion project that sent several men to prison, including McNair. He was released August 29, 2013, just days before the 50th anniversary of his daughter’s death.
Sen. Doug Jones, who had known McNair since he was a teen and Chris was his state representative, recalled his friend with reverence: “Christopher McNair was Birmingham—stoic, flawed, struggling with a difficult past, grateful and proud of what he achieved, and acknowledging a better future.”
“He took responsibility for his actions” and was loved by many, Jones said.
The McNairs waited a long time for justice in the death of their daughter. The first murderer, Robert Chambliss, was not convicted until November 17, 1977, on what would have been Denise’s 26th birthday. When he was appointed U.S. attorney to North Alabama, Jones brought two more convictions in 2001 for Tommy Blanton and 2002 for Bobby Cherry. All were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
McNair’s Belief in Forgiveness and Strength in Christ
McNair’s Lutheran pastor (1958-1967) and lifelong friend, Ellwanger, recalled McNair’s strong faith and compelling witness to the power of Christ to forgive: “By the grace of God, the light of Christ shined through Chris in one of the darkest moments in his life and Maxine’s life in the life of Birmingham in the life of Alabama and in the life of this nation—when four beautiful girls lost their lives on a Sunday morning getting ready to lead their congregation in worship.”
At a time when Chris and all of the local black community were tempted to return hatred for hatred and viciousness for viciousness, by the grace of God, Chris called publicly on television for the culprits of the heinous crime to be brought to justice. Despite the darkness of the moment, he “called for the light of restraint and a recognition of the dignity of every person—black and white.”
Lisa McNair, the oldest of two daughters born after Denise’s death, gave the eulogy, reflecting on her beloved father whom she said was the same person at home as in public. “There was no ‘Black people are this and white people are that,’” she said. Instead, he referred to human beings—some good, some who do evil.
Reflecting her father’s dynamic personality, smile, and graciousness, Lisa praised her parents, saying she and her younger sister Kim grew up with “integrated and inclusive” lives in a still-segregated city, and later helped see the city evolve from its dark past into a brighter place of potential and peace.
“We need to love each other one person at a time,” she said, reflecting the values her parents taught her. “Love has no color,” she learned, sharing stories of how her father “turned around” haters to become friends.
“I love Matthew 5:9 in The Message [Bible]: ‘You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight,’” she said. “That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. That was who daddy was.”
Outside the church on the bright sunny day, tourists flocked to the church memorial and sculptures for photographs, while cars lined up to drive to Elmwood Cemetery. McNair was laid to rest with the U.S. Army ceremony of taps and prayers and a Christ-centered committal by Ellwanger. Next to McNair’s grave is the marker for a little girl, gone too soon, that carries the inscription “Carol Denise McNair. She loved all, but a mad bomber hated her kind.”
“Life is hard at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moment of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summer and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
No greater tribute can be paid, no greater epitaph can come to them than where they died and what they were doing when they died. They died between the sacred walls o f the church of God and they were discussing the eternal meaning of love. Good night, sweet princesses. And may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Eulogy for the Young Victims of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing
Christine Weerts, author of “Heroes of Faith: Rosa Young,” directs the senior choir at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Autauga County, Ala., founded in 1922 through the ministry of African American missionary Rosa J. Young. She has degrees in music (BA) and religion (MA) and is a freelance writer.