Bending Toward Justice


Remembering Chris McNair

May 20, 2019

On May 8th, Chris McNair died of cancer. He was the father of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Chris was 93 years old. He leaves his loving wife Maxine as the sole surviving parent of any of the bombing victims.

He was also a dear friend. Below are the remarks I made at his funeral held on Friday, May 17th at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

You can read more about his life on the Washington Post website

On August 29, 2013 Chris McNair was coming home to Birmingham, Al., for the first time in several years.

It was closing in on midnight as we sat together, largely in tired silence, at the back of the last flight of the day into our hometown.

Suddenly, Chris lurched forward to peer out the plane window. As the modest nighttime skyline of Birmingham came into view, a sparkle danced in his eye – you would have thought he was glimpsing the blazing lights of New York for the first time.

Such was Chris McNair’s attachment to what Dr. Martin Luther King had called America’s most segregated city in the 1960s. It’s where the Tuskegee graduate set up his rich, long life, supporting a wonderful family, first as a milkman, then a schoolteacher, photographer, civic leader and elected public servant.

It was also where his only daughter at the time, eleven-year-old Denise, was killed. She was downstairs, in the lady’s lounge in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham with her friends Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Morris Wesley and Carole Robertson.

Addie Mae was tying the sash of Denise’s new dress when a bomb planted by men consumed by hate ripped through the lady’s lounge. The date was September 15, 1963, nearly 50 years before we flew into Birmingham that night together.

If anyone had a right to turn their back on Birmingham and its checkered history, it was Chris McNair. But even after his daughter was murdered—even after the FBI closed the file in 1968, Chris McNair stayed.

You may recall that on that fateful Sunday morning, when Chris and Maxine McNair lost Denise it was Youth Sunday here at the church.  The Sunday School lesson that day was “A Love That Forgives.” 

Chris McNair continued to live in Birmingham and he led a life that demonstrated forgiveness.  Forgiveness to this city, forgiveness to this state, and forgiveness to this country.  Chris McNair was full of the love that forgives.  But it didn’t come easy.  It took tremendous strength to love in order to share that love that forgives. 

In sharing that love that forgives, Chris became a willing and successful conduit between the white and black communities and he came to represent Birmingham and Alabama to the wider world—a world that had only seen Birmingham in black and white images of beatings at the Greyhound bus station and firehoses and dog. But as leader in the city, Chris represented a different Birmingham, as a city of hope and forgiveness and progress as the city tried to put its segregationist history behind it.

In 1973 he became one of the first African Americans to take a place in the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction. In the seat right next to him for much of his tenure was another Birmingham legislator, an arch-segregationist, who was a friend and close confidante to several of the men who killed Denise. But McNair wouldn’t budge. He served a higher purpose and continued work to better the city. He served the electorate honorably until he took over as Jefferson County Commissioner.

Chris was veteran, educator, milkman, legislator, photographer, commissioner, but most importantly a loving husband and a proud father.

My journey with him, and I use that term purposefully because our friendship became a journey, began shortly after he was elated to the legislature in 1973. I was a 20-year-old at the University of Alabama helping out with the orientation session for the new members of the legislature.  I lived in Fairfield, so I naturally sought him out. And I know what many of you who know me are thinking, but the fact that he continually had a camera hanging around his next neck constantly taking pictures had nothing to do with me following him around that weekend. But the fact is that I also got involved in politics back then and Chris and I stayed in touch.

In 1978 when Chris announced that he was going to vacate his legislative seat and run for Congress I had many of my friends and law school classmates urge me to run for his seat. “This is your chance,” they said. So, I called and went to see him. I laid out my case of how I thought I could win and how I could bring a youthful prospective to state government. He listened, politely, and although he didn’t say it aloud, looking back on that conversation I am sure he was thinking “Well, bless your heart” and he proceeded to school me in the ways of politics and the fact that the seat I was looking to fill was a “black seat.”  Wow. Didn’t expect that. I’ve got to tell you with that incredible baritone voice of his, I just assumed it was the Lord telling me that politics was not in my future and I better get back to studying (which I did!)

Over the years it was mainly politics that framed our friendship. When people think back about the bridges to better race relations that were built by Chris over the years, I think they often overlook the influence he had on so many young African Americans that followed him.  He actually lost more elections than he won in those early years, but just getting out there and trying – for a seat in the legislature, for Congress, for the US Senate, for the County Commission – set the example for so many that they can do it, that our community is changing and that they have a future if they only put themselves out there for public service.  One only has to look around Birmingham and the state to see the many faces of leaders who have followed in his footsteps.

Our journey together took a dramatic turn after I became United States Attorney and the church bombing cases proceeded through investigation and trials.  He and Maxine and Ms. Robertson (mother of bombing victim Carole) were the only surviving parents of the victims and I can tell you that they were both a source of strength and inspiration for us. 

The journey took a more somber turn as we had to return to court together to face another challenge.  Ultimately Chris accepted responsibility for his failings but what was remarkable was the continued depth of personal support for him that remained strong.  No one excused his conduct, but they wanted to make sure that everyone remembered the many positives that his service brought to the community. As my colleague and co-counsel in that trial Anil Mujumdar wrote to the Court following so many letters of support, what was especially significant about the body of testimonies was the diversity of the authors in age, ranging from 16 to 99 years; in geography and religious affiliation.  The mosaic make-up of the letters of support truly embodied the vision of America that Dr. King dreamed of.

Our last journey together was that plane ride home to Birmingham August, 2013.

Along with his brother Harold and my colleague Anil, I had driven him to Illinois to begin his separation from his family. And on that night in 2013, I had travelled to Minnesota to bring him home to Maxine, and Lisa and Kim, a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the death of his Denise. 

I will always remember arriving at the McNair home.  Maxine was waiting in the kitchen.  As he entered she said “I have missed you old man.”  And as he embraced her said sweetly, “I’ve missed you too baby.”

But the most poignant moment occurred just earlier at the airport.  Shortly after he peered down from the plane at the Birmingham skyline, we alighted into a near empty Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport terminal.

Think of what I just said.

Here he was coming into the airport in Birmingham, Alabama named after the great civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, whose great works Chris followed.  In the early hours, the only folks around seemed to be a group of overnight maintenance workers, on a meal break near the gate exit.

As we passed them by with Chris in a wheelchair, each of the men stood. One removed his hat and spoke for the group: “Welcome back, sir. Welcome home.”

Louise and I went to visit Chris just a week or so before his death.  We were a small part of a parade of friends and family who came not to say goodbye to pay our respects. He appeared strong, his voice never cracked and that intoxicating smile was a there. 

Chris McNair was Birmingham. Stoic, flawed, battling with a difficult past, but rightfully proud of his achievements, and always focused on securing a better future.

As we left him for the last time Louise said: “I am so glad that in this time he can still smile, I will always remember his wonderful smile.”

We assumed that smile was there for the friends and family who were calling or stopping by. But looking back, I think it is pretty easy to realize that Chris knew his time on Earth was short and that while he would miss his dear wife Maxine and devoted daughters Lisa and Kim, his smile was extra wide because he would also soon be reunited with another love of his life with whom he had been separated for over 55 years.

Today, he misses his daughter Denise no more.

Rest in Peace my old friend.

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