Father Recalls Deadly Blast At Ala. Baptist Church
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And before we end this hour, one final story: the story of 19 sticks of dynamite and four little girls. On this day in 1963, a bomb exploded in downtown Birmingham at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a rallying site for the civil rights movement. The clock at the church is still frozen at 10:22 a.m. The bomb was placed near the basement where children gathered to change into their choir robes. Four of them died, including 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Adie Mae Collins, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. The church bombing marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, sparking outrage among white northerners. Here's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at one of the funerals.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Reverend; Civil Rights Leader): They did not die in the dives and dens of Birmingham. Nor did they die discussing and listening to filthy jokes. They died between the sacred walls of the church of God. And they were discussing the eternal meaning of love.
NORRIS: Christopher McNair and his wife Maxine are the last surviving parents of the four girls who died that day. If you're old enough to remember the news coverage from that era, their daughter, Denise McNair, was the one who was pictured wearing the matching hat and coat. Chris McNair is now 82 years old, and he joins us now by phone. Thank you very much for speaking with us, sir.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MCNAIR: (Bereaved Father of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing): Thank you.
NORRIS: I can't imagine that this is an easy day for you. How do you and your wife normally mark this anniversary?
Mr. MCNAIR: Well, it's kind of a thing where we usually do it as quietly as we possibly can. Sometimes we go to the church if the church is having something. But other than that, we'll be by ourselves here at the studio.
NORRIS: The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is something that's probably hard for you to avoid as you drive around town. How do you deal with that?
Mr. MCNAIR: Well, it is, it is most hard to avoid. In fact, you just don't avoid it. But you would maybe find it a little hard to believe, but I didn't even cry for three or four months after the bombing. My wife was going to pieces, and I can't give an answer as to why I didn't cry. I guess I thought I had to hold everybody else together because I'm not the type of person who, you know, doesn't cry. I will cry if certain music is playing, but in that particular instance, I can't give an answer as to why I didn't cry.
NORRIS: You know, it's a difficult question to ask, but I'm wondering if you would allow me to ask you about that.
Mr. MCNAIR: Oh, you may ask me anything you want to. I mean, I've had pain, and still I have pain even now, so you go ahead.
NORRIS: Well, do you mind if ask you about that day?
Mr. MCNAIR: No, I don't mind.
NORRIS: Where were you that morning?
Mr. MCNAIR: I was in my church. I went to the St. Paul Lutheran Church, and my wife and my daughter were at Sixteenth Street. It was an overcast day. That I'll never forget. Today happens to be an overcast day down here, too.
NORRIS: What did you see when you first arrived at the church? At the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church?
Mr. MCNAIR: I never did get there. I never did get there. A block away from the church, I saw my wife's cousin, and she told me, come on, go with me. We can't find Denise. And so I moved her over from under the steering wheel, and we drove over to a hospital, and we fumbled around, and we found somebody else who had been in the morgue. And there lay all four of them, there side by side on the table. And Denise was lying out there with a piece of mortar, it looked like a rock, mashed in her head.
NORRIS: The sermon on the day of the blast, as I understand, was entitled, "The Love that Forgives."
Mr. MCNAIR: Yeah, I heard that, even though there wasn't a sermon that day.
NORRIS: There wasn't a sermon?
Mr. MCNAIR: No, it was in - the bombing happened between Sunday school and sermon time.
NORRIS: So the sermon wasn't, the sermon would have been entitled...
Mr. MCNAIR: Yeah.
NORRIS: "The Love that Forgives."
Mr. MCNAIR: Yeah.
NORRIS: Is that something that's been difficult for you to move to a place of forgiveness after something so awful has happened to a member of your family?
Mr. MCNAIR: Well, let's put it this way. I don't say that I have forgiven. I have arisen with it. You know, it's pretty hard to put yourself in the position, seeing the first trial wasn't until 14 years after the bombing. And then later on, after probably thirty-six or seven or eight years after the bombing, two other people got tried. So, I think that at this point the courts have done what they needed to do. But that was a long time coming.
NORRIS: Why did you decide to stay in Birmingham?
Mr. MCNAIR: Well, you must realize that this was 45 years ago. And you have to ask yourself, where would I have gone 45 years ago where things would have been any different? There may have been a difference on who is voting, who said this and that. But I was still black, and I still am black. Some of the agony and some of the wrongs have hit me. And they've hit me where it hurts. But I'm still here.
NORRIS: Mr. McNair, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
Mr. MCNAIR: Well, thank you for calling me.
NORRIS: That was Christopher McNair. He and his wife, Maxine, are the last surviving parents of the four girls who were killed on September 15 at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.