Denise McNair carries the torch of hope and freedom

MCTC’s African American Education Empowerment Program (AME) sponsored an event during Black History month to commemorate the lives of the four African American adolescents killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham. Their murders helped to galvanize the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lisa McNair, the sister of victim Denise McNair, 11, was the featured speaker at the event.

The circumstances of those times and events that deprived Maxine and Christopher McNair of their daughter and Lisa McNair of her big sister are herein recounted.

The church’s iconic red brick and glass church marquee indicated, in bold black letters, the 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. services. There was, however, no recognizable warning of the horror that was to come that fateful morning.

An unsuspecting teenager answered an anonymous telephone call that morning. The caller, a white man, said few words other than to mention a time, and then a dial tone echoed in the unsuspecting teenagers’ ears for mere moments thinking nothing of it later to be a proven ominous message.

Ordinarily, there was only one morning service, but this month the entire month was dedicated to children. It was time for the 16th St. Baptist Church annual outreach to children—the Children’s Ministry where the children were more actively engaged in what and how they learned how to enhance their spiritual lives. Maybe the four youths would not have been in the church in harm’s way that warm but overcast day.

She wishes she had played hopscotch and dolls, colored in coloring books, and sang in the church choir with her big sister. She had to experience her sister’s warmth, sense of humor and love through the stories told to her by her parents, Maxine and Christopher McNair.

Denise, an only child at the time, enjoyed life. She loved her parents. She loved her friends. She loved dolls. Yellow was her favorite color.

The McNair family regularly attended Sunday services. Like most Sundays, eleven-year-old Denise McNair and her parents ate breakfast together. Denise got ready for church. It was the custom that worshippers dressed up for church. The McNair family honored the African American tradition of dressing up to show respect for the occasion. It showed pride in themselves and reverence for the house of worship. This was culturally second nature to Southern Baptist Christians, which suited Denise.

The McNairs, both Tuskegee educated parents, were able to provide for their daughter. They made sure their only child presented well. Maxine said one day Denise’s dad, a professional photographer, took a photo of Denise when she was not quite ready. She insisted he retake the photo.

In the original photo, taken in the McNair’s front yard, Denise was dressed in a short-sleeved white dress, little white socks, black patent leather shoes, and matching purse. She is standing next to her young mother who was also dressed in her Sunday best black dress and floppy straw dress hat. It was one of Maxine’s favorite photos and was included in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary entitled “Four Little Girls”.

Denise collected African American dolls of various hues, white dolls with red, blonde, brown hair. She had Asian dolls, and dolls representing other countries. She dressed each one fastidiously.

At about the same time Denise was having breakfast with her family and getting ready for church, Chambliss and his cohorts had already implemented their plan.

In the 1960s, Birmingham was one of the Ku Klux Klan’s biggest strongholds. Klan terrorism was common in 1963.

Despite the toxic climate, progress in the movement was made. The local Birmingham merchants had agreed to integrate private businesses. The Freedom Riders had come down to the Deep South to aid African Americans in their voting rights efforts. The civil rights movement brought about the integration of public facilities. The segregated drinking fountains and restrooms that African American parents had at some point been compelled to explain to their children were opening up to them. Chambliss resented these gains. The civil rights gains incited them to violent opposition. Frequent bombings generated the nickname, “Bombingham.”

African Americans developed a middle-class neighborhood in Birmingham.

It was a frequent target of bombing activity. It was nicknamed Dynamite Hill because it happened to be located on a hill, bordered on one side by Center Street, the prominent dividing line between black Birmingham and white Birmingham.

A resident of the city said that some whites hated black people so much they did not want them to have anything nice even when they were segregated from whites.

Birmingham’s racial climate was further exacerbated by the gubernatorial election of George Wallace. The newly elected governor vehemently opposed integration. In his inauguration speech, Wallace firmly established his anti-integration slogan when he declared, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Wallace personally attempted to obstruct the federal court order to desegregate the University of Alabama by standing in the doorway of the U of A’s Foster Auditorium to physically block the entry and registration of two African American prospective students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, who were supposed to be allowed to register for classes. Wallace’s actions propelled him to national notoriety.

In this venomous environment and during this time of white racial hatred, Denise and her friends played with dolls and sought normalcy as best they could. Denise even sponsored a Muscular Dystrophy charity drive in her neighborhood to help other children regardless of race or ethnicity.

That morning the girls walked to church. It was about a 20 minute walk, but it took longer that day because along the way the girls played a game with Addie Mae’s purse that was shaped like a football. Denise was scheduled to actively participate in the youth ministry message.

When she and the other girls arrived at the church they went downstairs to the restroom to fix their hair and clean up. Denise borrowed a hairbrush from one of the adults in the church. She and the other girls were in the restroom when the bomb that was planted under the stairs exploded. It happened to be planted near the bathroom.

Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Carol Robertson, 14, were killed by the bomb. Police estimated 15 sticks of dynamite were used. The four girls were in a bathroom in the lower level of the church getting ready for bible studies class when the bomb exploded.

Webster also says yellow, in some instances, represents cowardice and deceit such as demonstrated by the actions of “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss and his cohorts.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The youth fellowship sermon in which Denise was scheduled to participate on that fateful Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, was called “The Love That Forgives.”

Yellow was Denise’s favorite color. Webster’s dictionary describes the meaning of yellow as the color of sunshine, hope, and happiness. And for her final goodbye, Maxine McNair dressed her daughter in yellow and laid her to rest.

14 years after the death of the girls, the State of Alabama indicted, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the first of the four believed to have been involved in the bombing. He was convicted and sentenced to life.

Years later, (2001 & 2002) Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, and were convicted of murder and imprisoned for life. Herman Cash died before he was charged.

Lisa McNair was born two years after her sister was killed. She said she wished she had a big sister.

She is a full-time business owner. She spends part of her time giving speeches and attending events in order to keep her sister’s legacy alive. In her MCTC speech, McNair stressed society would be better off by seeking common ground.

McNair shared a message of love and reconciliation at the AME event.

“I try to be a party of one and show love to the world. I think each one of us can do that. We are more alike than we are different,” said McNair. “I don’t live in a fairytale world and I know there’s evil in the world. But each one of us must think positively and reach out across the aisle and talk to different people and get to know people.”

Anne Marie Arndt, an attendee at the MCTC event, took a group of students to the Birmingham Church a couple years ago. She said she came to the event to hear McNair’s message.

“I met Addie Mae Collins’s sister a couple of years ago,” said Arndt. “I wanted to come and hear another perspective and learn more about our history.”

Ardnt is a colleague and friend to AME Coordinator, Dr. Marcellus Davis. She is also white, which gives her phrase “our history” one of inclusion.

Addy Lopez, 28, MCTC liberal arts student said, “I came here to get a better understanding of what really happened, to get the true story. I’ve always been really intrigued by the culture of people who are oppressed. I consider myself a minority. My parents immigrated to the states when I was young and I grew up in a primarily African American community. And it wasn’t necessarily middle-upper class. I’ve seen a little bit of both, dual lifestyles.”

“I think people learned today. I think they got beyond the surface level learning, learning about the four little girls,” said Davis. “I know that today people learned, people’s hearts and ears were opened and if you left here and that wasn’t in your heart I can’t say that you were fully present. This event will have been a success if the names of these four beautiful young girls—Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson—are remembered.”