SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
In 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four Black girls in an Alabama church rocked the nation.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sunday morning September 15 - in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., the Sunday school lesson is from Matthew. I say unto you, love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. Then a bomb blows up under the church steps.
MCCAMMON: The crime drew worldwide attention to the violent resistance to equal rights in the American South and galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act. In a new memoir, Lisa McNair recounts growing up in a newly integrated Birmingham after the notorious bombing that killed her sister, Denise. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.
DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: 16th Street Baptist Church is an iconic landmark in Birmingham, with its blue neon sign, dramatic stained-glass windows and imposing twin bell towers. Near the back corner of the building is a grave-like stone etched with the names of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair.
LISA MCNAIR: This is the marker that supposedly marks the spot where the bomb was placed.
ELLIOT: Lisa McNair is Denise's sister.
MCNAIR: She was the youngest of the four. She was 11. And the other four girls were 14, just beginning their freshman year in high school.
ELLIOT: It was Youth Sunday, and the girls were freshening up between Sunday school and the worship service. McNair points to where there were stairs back then.
MCNAIR: The bomb was stuck up at the bottom of the staircase. And they had just come out of the ladies' lounge and were standing near this window. And that's why they got the full impact.
ELLIOT: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy in 1963, calling the bombing a turning point.
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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.
KING: ...That will bring new light to this dark city.
ELLIOT: Lisa McNair didn't hear that historic eulogy. And she never met her sister Denise. Lisa was born a year after the bombing - her family still grieving. Her new book "Dear Denise: Letters To The Sister I Never Knew" imagines what it would have been like to have a relationship with her big sister. Sitting on a red velvet pew at 16th Street Baptist Church, she pulls out one of the few tangible mementos she has of Denise's young life.
What do you have here?
MCNAIR: This is Denise's diary. So it's her handwriting in here. And how cool is that to see her handwriting and get a glean of a little bit of who she was as a person?
ELLIOT: The entries are penned in little girl cursive - the last one in August, a month before she was killed. McNair says she's always wanted to write a book about her experience growing up in Birmingham after the bombing but never knew where to start. A friend recommended letters to Denise, and the stories began to flow.
MCNAIR: So from that point on, it was much easier to write the rest of the book because I would just write stuff that I would think to tell her. And I wanted to be - I wanted it to be about my life. So chronologically, I could tell her, well, this happened when I was this age, and this happened when I was that age. And it just flowed. It just worked really well.
ELLIOT: What was it like once you started writing those letters? Did you feel a deeper connection with her?
MCNAIR: I did at times. At times I would think, boy, I would really like to be having this conversation with you live.
ELLIOT: How do you think that shaped you, being the sister to a girl who was - really became an icon because of this notorious civil rights crime?
MCNAIR: It's shaped my whole life.
ELLIOT: The book is both a personal look at how the McNair family endured and a broader reckoning with the ongoing fight against racism in Birmingham, a city known in the civil rights era as Bombingham (ph) because of the KKK's vicious reign of terror against Black activists. She fills Denise in on the birth of their baby sister Kimberly and how their father, Chris McNair, became one of the first Black lawmakers elected to the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction. There are sad memories of her mother weeping at Denise's graveside and Lisa's experience being among the first generation of Black students to attend integrated schools - a beneficiary of the change wrought by her family's tragedy. She also writes about a woman she bonded with over the years who would help fill the void of losing her big sister.
REENA EVERS-EVERETTE: I am Reena Evers-Everette.
ELLIOT: The daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. Her father, Medgar, was the Mississippi civil rights leader assassinated by a Ku Klux Klansman just three months before the Birmingham church bombing. Evers-Everette says her relationship with Lisa McNair is special.
EVERS-EVERETTE: We call each other sister.
ELLIOT: Evers-Everette recalls that when they first met at a civil rights memorial event, she told McNair how her middle name was Denise, just like Lisa's late sister.
EVERS-EVERETTE: And we connected by talking about the pain of losing a loved one so tragically, so brutally at the hand of hate and talking about what it's like to live in the fishbowl of that.
ELLIOT: And living for years with no justice - it would take decades before convictions came in both crimes. In the meantime, Lisa McNair was struggling to find her own identity in a changing country, a major theme in her book. McNair says after the bombing, her parents enrolled her in a mostly white private school, and she found herself navigating two separate worlds with no playbook.
MCNAIR: I'm just paving the way - not of my own volition - for what the next phase of America is supposed to look like. But I'm catching hell for it in a lot of places from my own people because I don't look like, I don't sound like, I don't act like what has been traditionally what Black people do. I was made to feel that I didn't fit in and that I wasn't Black enough.
ELLIOT: It's something she had to work through even as an adult. Reena Evers-Everette says writing honestly about that took courage.
EVERS-EVERETTE: I applaud her for being raw and real.
ELLIOT: She hopes McNair's memoir will open a dialogue about what acceptance of all humanity really looks like. Outside 16th Street Baptist Church, Lisa McNair notes how tour buses now bring people on pilgrimages here as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
MCNAIR: This is an American story. And all Americans should come and see where some people took hate so far. Like, we got a lot of hate in our country now, and they think it's a thing and it's OK. But this is what hate looks like when it just gets out of control.
ELLIOT: McNair says it should be a cautionary tale in today's polarized climate, which she fears could lead to renewed racial violence.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Birmingham.
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