Chris McNair, a former legislator, Jefferson County Commission member and father of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 93.
The family in a statement called McNair a “devoted husband, father, brother and friend.”
“We are grateful for the life and legacy of our father, J. Christopher McNair. He was a man who loved his family and this community. We ask for prayers and privacy as we prepare to lay him to rest,” the family said in its statement, released by McNair’s daughter Lisa.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin shared some of those thoughts in a press release he issued with condolences for McNair’s family.
“Mr. McNair and his family are forever tied to our country’s civil-rights legacy,” Woodfin wrote. “When he tragically lost his daughter Denise in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, his courage and fortitude fueled our march for peace. He was the consummate family man, showcasing an unconditional love for humanity that paved the way for social justice in Birmingham and in our nation.”
McNair became one of the first African American members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction when he was elected as a state representative in 1973. He later won a seat on the Jefferson County Commission, a position he held from 1986 to 2001.
McNair was convicted in 2006 on bribery and conspiracy charges connected with companies that had received work in the overhaul of the county’s sewer system also helping him renovate his photography studio.
He was sentenced to five years and, after his appeals were rejected, started serving his time in 2011. He was released in 2013 under a federal compassionate release program.
His friend and lawyer, and the prosecutor who much later convicted two men in the church bombing, now-U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, told WBRC in an interview Wednesday that he had visited McNair about a week ago. Jones said he knew the end was near, but McNair was in good spirits and seemed strong during his visit.
“He still at 93 had that booming voice … and that special smile,” Jones said.
McNair was a teacher-turned-photographer in the 1960s when his wife, Maxine, and daughter, Denise, went to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church one September morning, completely unaware that dynamite attached to a timer had been placed under some outdoor stairs at the church. McNair attended a different church at the time.
Bombings were a tangible and reasonable fear at that time, so much so that the city had earned the nickname “Bombingham.”
But the Sixteenth Street church bombing was different. It killed four young girls — Denise McNair, 11; and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, who all were 14. This bombing, the deaths and the protests that followed focused national outrage on Birmingham and fueled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After the death of what at the time was their only daughter, McNair and his wife are credited with responding in a way that did not seek to fan the flames of racial unrest.
Jones said McNair responded with “dignity and grace.” He said that, despite the pain of losing their child, the McNairs were determined to move Birmingham to a better place, beyond the racial unrest of the era.
Diane McWhorter, a journalist and author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” said in a New York Times opinion piece several years ago that McNair “transcended his anguish to become an agent of community healing, a popular politician whom white people appreciated for his policy of not bringing up his child’s martyrdom.”
At the request of the city’s white leadership, McNair even joined the delegation representing Birmingham in Look magazine’s “All American Cities” contest in 1970. McWhorter said McNair told her in an earlier interview that he knew he was being used, but he went along with it because he believed the issue was “bigger than me – and bigger than them.”
The McNairs tried not to lead with their daughter’s death and their own suffering, even shielding the two daughters they had later from the event. McNair’s daughter Kimberly said in a CNN interview several years ago that it wasn’t until she was about 8, making Lisa about 12, that they learned details of the bombing.
But it wasn’t until filmmaker Spike Lee began interviewing their parents many years later for his documentary “4 Little Girls” that they fully understood the horror of that day, she said.