Lisa McNair’s name has been linked to Birmingham’s history since she was born.
“I was born almost exactly a year after [Denise] was killed, and so I was kind of a miracle baby,” she said.
McNair’s 11-year-old sister, Carol “Denise” McNair, was the youngest of four girls killed in the Birmingham racist attack. 16th Street Baptist Church September 15, 1963. The attack was carried out by members of the Klu Klux Klan. This marked a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.
Lisa McNair grew up in the first generation of African Americans after legal segregation and recounts that experience in her memoir Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knewwhich comes out on Tuesday – the same week as the 59th anniversary of the church bombing.
Her recollection of what happened to the girls was sometimes difficult because of what she described as a culture of silence within the African American community.
“I think it was kind of protective not to talk about it because if you had to think about it and talk about it all the time, you’d be so frustrated and devastated all the time with the lack of respect you have as a human being on this earth,” she said.
McNair wrote that she was a teenager before finding out who were the other families who had lost children in the bombing. She said the feeling within her church culture was to turn it over to God and pray for justification.
You are ‘a white girl’
After his sister’s death, McNair’s parents, Maxine McNair and the former Alabama Rep. Chris McNairdecided to send him to a predominantly white school, Advent Episcopal School.
“My whole thought process was ‘they’ve gone mad’. This tragedy has made them lose their minds…they’re trying to kill me,” she laughed.
Eventually, her time in Advent became a memory she cherished. She said that instead of racism, she was encouraged and accepted.
But as his perception of whites has changed, his perception of blacks has also changed. McNair didn’t have many black friends except for a few kids from his neighborhood and family.
She wrote in her book, “Going to school with upper and middle class white and black children made me feel like everything was fine for black people. When I saw black people on TV complaining about racism and how they were being mistreated, I found it annoying… What I didn’t understand was that my thinking echoed that of people I spent most of my time with, people at school — white person.”
McNair said she had to “do her best” to fit in with black children and often found herself reading an encyclopedia or playing with her dogs instead. Being called “a white girl” was the kicker.
“It hurt because it meant first, on some level, that I wasn’t authentic to my Blackness, or that I wasn’t acting Black enough,” she said. “But also knowing that my sister died for the cause, how dare I not be black enough and she died for it? But none of that was true. I wasn’t trying to not be quite black.
As she got older, McNair said she not only didn’t fit in with black kids her age, but also began to feel separated from her white friends. This created a feeling of loneliness and eventually led to suicidal thoughts.
“I felt like I didn’t want to be here anymore. I’m tired. But how can I do this and remove another child from my mom and dad’s life? ” she says.
Lean on your faith
McNair said her Christian faith is what got her through loneliness and suicidal thoughts, mourning a sister she never knew, and ultimately the death of her parents.
Her relationship with Jesus Christ is a focal point throughout her book. McNair grew up dividing his time between two churches. His mother attended 16th Street Baptist Church. Her father attended a Lutheran church. As an adult, she joined the Sardis Baptist Church and enjoyed its flourishing singles ministry. But in the early 2000s, after much prayer, McNair became a member of the Dawson Family of Faith, a predominantly white Baptist church in Homewood.
“It’s only a thing of God because it makes no sense,” she laughed.
McNair wrote in her book that she expected to experience racism when she joined this church. She says it happened to some extent, but it wasn’t “overt”. For the most part, McNair said she only received love from people in Dawson. But it was her faith that helped her respond to racism.
“The main thing I find about Christ is that he teaches love and how much he loves us – each one of us. It doesn’t matter the worst thing we’ve done or said. He loves us,” McNair said. .
Eventually, three people were convicted of the bombing: Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before being charged.
But it took almost 15 years after the attack for the first suspect to be found guilty.
In his book, McNair revealed that Chambliss wrote a letter to his parents asking for their help in getting him out of prison. She also said she became friends with Tracy, a woman whose father was a person of interest in the case but who was never charged.
McNair also explored his experiences of falling in love, his ‘father’s dilemma’ after being convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the Jefferson County sewer scandaland tackle tough questions like when she asked her mother if she was supposed to hate white people for what they did to Denise.
“She immediately said no, that we’re not supposed to hate white people. We are supposed to love everyone as Christ loves us,” McNair said. “If she said I had to hate all white people, that would mean I had to hate all my friends in class, I had to hate all my teachers, and as a kid, I didn’t know how I was going to only love Les Black and hate white people. It just didn’t work. It was going to be a lot more work than my little mind could grasp. Her answer to love everyone was simple.