Sister of girl killed in 1963 church bombing shares her story in ‘Dear Denise’

The younger sister of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing has written a book of letters to the sister she never met, offering a insight into how the tragedy affected the lives of the families of the victims.

The bomb exploded on September 15, 1963 at 10:22 a.m., during Sunday school time. Four girls were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Denise McNair’s parents had tried for years to have another child after Denise was born but only succeeded after her death at 11.

Lisa McNair was born on September 19, 1964, a year and five days after the attack. She never knew her older sister except through photos and family stories.

For years, she has been writing letters addressed to Denise. They are compiled in “Dear Denise,” published this week by the University of Alabama Press.

“I think people will enjoy reading it and getting a glimpse of how our family has come through this incredible loss and being in front of the world trying to make it happen,” McNair said. “It’s actually the story of my life, but I tell it to her in letters because she wasn’t there to be part of the experience.”

The desire to speak to his sister through letters had been a long process.

“I’ve wanted to write the book since I was 14,” she said. “At 14, I graduated from Advent Episcopal Day School, which is a predominantly white private school. I was part of the first generation of African Americans to be truly free to interact with white people in this country. I knew this whole experience was different and not what had been normal before, and so I always knew I wanted to write it.

It’s hard to gauge what she missed out on not having her older sister in her life, she said.

“I think she would have been a great support system and helped through a lot of the bumps I’ve been through in my life and been supportive and there for me,” McNair said.

The deaths of the four girls are widely seen as a turning point in the civil rights movement that led to the collapse of segregation laws.

“It’s a bittersweet thing, losing her and not getting to know her was really sad, but her death and the deaths of the other three girls was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act and for many changes,” McNair said.

“Of all the evil things that happened during this time, killing children in a church was just heinous and egregious,” she said. “No one could think that was a good thing. I think it brought people who were silent witnesses who were sitting on the sidelines, saying nothing but seeing evil, and made them think, wow, let me talk, let me change some things We’ve let this hurt go on a little too long.

Lisa McNair’s parents first tried to enroll her in an all-white Christian private school, Advent Episcopal Day School, in 1968. She was denied admission.

“They said I didn’t pass the test to get into kindergarten,” McNair said. “Kindergarten!” Four-year kindergarten. My mother was a teacher. If your mother is a teacher, we teach you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Mom and dad never said that, but I guess it was just racism. They weren’t ready to have black children at that time. It was in 1968.

When her younger sister, Kimberly, born in 1968, turned four, the family again attempted to enroll both girls in Advent Day School. This time they were accepted, in 1972.

Lisa had to repeat second grade, then attended Advent Day School until eighth grade. “They had the option of putting me in third grade or letting me repeat second grade,” she said. “They felt like I hadn’t learned enough from the public school I was in. I agreed with them, even at that young age I knew there was something missing in my education at Roosevelt that year.”

She attended Roosevelt Elementary School in her hometown of Roosevelt City.

The first week at a previously all-white school scared her.

“My neighborhood school, I could walk home,” she said. “I knew the way back. Going to Advent was downtown so it was a good 25 minute drive from my place. I was terrified those first two days. I was thinking, what if something happens to me, or if someone tries to hurt me or kill me or attack me, like they did with my sister, how do I get home? Where is a safe space? I remember being very nervous that first day.

She adapted quickly and was well received by her fellow students and staff, she said.

“Advent was wonderful,” she says. “I have to give it to them. I often look back fondly on those years there and how wonderful they were.

But her immersion in white culture later gave her doubts about what she was leaving behind.

“I talk a lot about the transition from an all-black environment of living and going to school and working with all black people and then suddenly one day you’re thrown into a completely integrated environment, not even integrated , but white culture, which is something unfamiliar to most of us as African Americans, the good and the bad about it, and also the silent loss of a part of my black culture by being so immersed in white culture,” she said. “I’m talking about wanting to go back, for lack of a better word, to my blackness, but integrating that into what I had learned in white culture to make me who I am as a person.”

The FBI closed its investigation into the 1968 bombing without pressing charges, but after his election as Alabama attorney general in 1971, Bill Baxley reopened the case. In 1977, Baxley successfully prosecuted Robert Chambliss on four counts of murder in connection with the bombing.

In 1996, her parents sat down for interviews with filmmaker Spike Lee, who made the documentary “4 Little Girls.” This experience helped her learn more about Denise.

“I think the time in my life where I learned the most about her, things I didn’t know, was when Spike Lee was in town doing the documentary,” he said. she stated. “There was a culture of silence among many in the black community and my family members and church people, where we really didn’t just talk about a lot of what happened about of the attack. It was a whole period of silence. By coming over Spike and just opening that window for us to have a conversation, people were able to share in a way that they had never been able to share before.

In 2001, Chambliss’ co-conspirators in the bombing, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, were successfully prosecuted by US attorney Doug Jones.

The family’s role and response to the lawsuits is addressed by McNair in his “Dear Denise” letters.

“I talk a lot about family, and what we’ve been through since Denise was killed, what our family’s been through, we talk about the hardships and the intimate look from our point of view on all of this, the girl killer trial, what happened in our house that people couldn’t see,” McNair said. “It’s a very intimate portrait of my life that people don’t know about. very close, and not even some of them. Some of them read the book and said, “I’ve known you all my life and I didn’t know that. I never knew about any of this.” .

But the family’s challenges weren’t over after the hardships.

Chris McNair, father of Denise, Lisa and Kimberly, was elected to the Jefferson County Commission in 1986 and oversaw the city’s sewer system. He resigned in 2001. In 2006, he was convicted of 11 counts of bribery and conspiracy involving contractors for county sewer projects. In 2007, he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Lisa McNair dropped out of UAB without a degree and in the 1990s began working for her father’s company, serving as President of Chris McNair Studios and Art Gallery. As his father’s legal troubles mounted, his business declined.

“It had already diminished by the time he was away,” she said. “The business failed. I got into a lot of debt. »

Chris McNair received a humanitarian release from prison in 2013 due to failing health. He died in 2019. The last years of his life after prison, his father was a broken man, she said.

“It was very sad,” she said. “We were grateful to have him home, but I think this whole experience broke him, and he was never the same again. So that was very sad.

Lisa’s mother, Maxine McNair, died earlier this year.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, Lisa and her sister, Kimberly McNair Brock, will attend the 59th annual memorial service in remembrance of the victims of the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

On Friday, she will have her official book launch at 5 p.m. at the church, followed by a reception and book signing in the rotunda of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Lisa McNair watched Queen Elizabeth II of England’s outpouring of grief recently, and she can relate, she said.

“I think of the queen who just died and I’m really sad about that, sad for her children,” she said. “I feel them and I can identify with them in a way, not on such a scale, but how they go through this in front of the world. They don’t have the opportunity to go and cry in your room. They don’t have that luxury, that option. I can totally identify with that.

Lisa McNair wrote a book of letters to her older sister, Denise McNair, who was killed in the September 15, 1963, bombing that killed four girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Jerry B. Hatch