On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, as Sunday church services were set to begin across Birmingham, Alabama, Chris McNair heard a boom across town.
“Is that thunder?” McNair, a milkman and photographer and the father of an 11-year-old girl, recalled wondering.
It was the sound of dynamite set by the Ku Klux Klan, tearing through the 16th Street Baptist Church, the African American congregation where McNair’s wife, Maxine, and their daughter Denise worshipped. But he did not know, not yet.
He left the Lutheran church he attended to head in the direction of the blast, stopping at his photography studio to pick up a camera. McNair’s work, published in outlets including Jet magazine, chronicled black life in Birmingham, a city that had become known as “Bombingham” for the violence that plagued it during the civil rights movement. Perhaps there was something important to photograph, he reasoned.
A relative stopped him on the street, told him of the bombing and sent McNair to the hospital. His wife was unharmed. At first he took comfort as he scoured a list of injured parishioners and did not find his daughter’s name. Then he was escorted to a room with the lifeless bodies of four girls.
“I saw a little foot sticking out from under one of the sheets. A scarred patent-leather shoe covered with dust,” he later told an interviewer, according to “Carry Me Home,” Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the tumultuous events that took place in Birmingham in 1963. “I suppose every little girl’s foot looks about the same, but I knew it was Denise. I didn’t need to look under the sheet to know it was her.”
In their horrifying senselessness, the deaths of Denise McNair and the three other girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 – helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But for years, McNair rarely spoke of his daughter’s murder as he rose to become one of the first black members of the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction and a Jefferson County commissioner.
“I didn’t want anybody to ever think I was using Denise to move myself up the line,” he later told the Birmingham News.
When McNair left the county commission in 2001, he was roundly admired in Birmingham and beyond. Several years later, he was convicted on federal corruption charges stemming from the $3 billion overhaul of the local sewer system. His imprisonment, and ultimate release, prompted an emotional reckoning with what Birmingham had taken from his family, what he had given to the city and what mercy he was owed in return.
McNair died May 8 at his home in Birmingham. He was 93 years old. The cause was cancer, said his daughter Lisa McNair.
“I think Chris should be remembered as someone who suffered unimaginable tragedy in the 1960s, but had the resolve to stay in Birmingham,” said Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., who prosecuted two of the church bombers decades after the fact and later represented McNair during his professional legal travails. McNair tried “to do his best to make it a better place,” Jones continued, “and he did.”
Jewell Christopher McNair was born in Fordyce, Arkansas, on Nov. 22, 1925, the oldest of 12 children in a farming family. He served in the Army during World War II before receiving an agronomy degree in 1949 from what is now Tuskegee University, the historically black institution in Alabama. The next year, he married Maxine Pippen, a classmate. Carol Denise, their first child, was born Nov. 17, 1951.
The McNairs gave Denise what McWhorter described as a comfortable, enriching life, with a piano and dance lessons. They sought to teach her that not all whites were racist but could not spare their child the indignities of Jim Crow segregation. Denise cried, according to an account from McWhorter, when McNair took her to a five-and-dime store and was forced to explain why she could not sit at the counter for a hot dog.
“Remember, baby, what we told you about those few mean white people?” he told her. “Well, those few people don’t want you to buy a hot dog in a five-and-ten-cent store in Birmingham, Alabama.”
Even in the immediate aftermath of his daughter’s death, McNair sought to be a unifying figure. He invited Joseph W. Ellwanger, his white Lutheran minister, to participate in the funeral jointly held for Denise and two of the other slain girls.
“Chris was somebody who wanted to communicate a message to the world,” Ellwanger said in an interview. “He wanted the world to know that the black community was not rising up against the white community because of this bombing.”
“Rather,” Ellwanger continued, “they were still hopeful for the ‘beloved community,’ as Dr. King called it.”
For months after his daughter’s death, McNair did not cry. “I was angry,” he later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I had a sense of balance. People were asking me, ‘Why don’t you leave?’ I said, ‘Where else can I go and not still be black in the United States?’ My intent was to try to make this a better section of the world.”
McNair and his wife had two more daughters. In 1970, as Birmingham sought to overcome its tortured past, his endorsement and advocacy helped it win an All-America City Award sponsored by Look magazine.
“I knew that the city fathers were using me,” McNair told McWhorter, “and they knew I knew they were using me.” He participated, he said, “because the overall picture was bigger than me – and bigger than them.”
In 1973, McNair won a seat as a Democrat in the Alabama House of Representatives, where he became chairman of the county delegation. In 1986, he was elected to the Jefferson County Commission. He lost primary bids for the U.S. House in 1978 and the U.S. Senate in 1992.
The sewer system and the scandal surrounding it were linked, along with other factors, to the county’s eventual bankruptcy. In 2006, McNair was convicted in federal court on conspiracy and bribery charges. Prosecutors alleged that he had bestowed lucrative government contracts in exchange for cash and in-kind work, including the renovation of his photography studio. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, admitting that he had accepted and attempted to hide $140,000 in bribes.
In September 2007, McNair was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of more than $850,000. President Barack Obama declined to grant him clemency, but McNair was released in 2013 as part of a “compassionate relief” program for sick and elderly inmates.
McNair insisted that there had been no quid pro quo – that the contractors had provided their services as friends. Lisa McNair suggested to McWhorter that the contractors had done their work not only “out of love for Daddy,” but also “out of apology, or guilt.” At least one had recently seen the Spike Lee documentary “4 Little Girls” (1997) that laid bare the extent of her father’s suffering.The renovation of his photo studio included a memorial for Denise.
McNair noted the swiftness of his conviction, contrasting it with the long delay of justice for his daughter. The first conviction in the church bombing did not come until 1977, with a guilty verdict for Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss. A second conspirator, Thomas E. Blanton Jr., was convicted in 2001, and a third, Bobby Frank Cherry, in 2002.
“It took them 38 years to bring to justice the people responsible for the deaths of my daughter and the other three girls at 16th Street Baptist Church,” he told the Birmingham News.
McNair’s survivors include his wife and two daughters, Lisa McNair and Kimberly Brock, all of Birmingham; and 10 siblings. Denise McNair would today be 67.
“It’s always with me,” McNair told the Atlanta newspaper. “You see kids who were her classmates, they’re grandparents now. And you wonder, ‘What would my daughter be doing now?’ “