Obituaries

Chris McNair, father of 1963 church bombing victim, dies at 93

Chris McNair’s survivors include his wife, Maxine McNair. Their daughter was killed in a 1963 church bombing.
Hal Yeager/Associated Press/File 2013
Chris McNair’s survivors include his wife, Maxine McNair. Their daughter was killed in a 1963 church bombing.

WASHINGTON — On Sept. 15, 1963, as Sunday services were set to begin across Birmingham, Ala., Chris McNair heard a boom across town.

‘‘Is that thunder?’’ Mr. McNair, a milkman and photographer and the father of an 11-year-old girl, recalled wondering.

It was the sound of dynamite set off by the Ku Klux Klan, tearing through the 16th Street Baptist Church, the African American congregation where Mr. McNair’s wife, Maxine, and their daughter Denise worshipped. But he did not know, not yet.

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He left the Lutheran church he attended to head in the direction of the blast, stopping at his studio for a camera. Mr. McNair’s work, published in outlets including Jet magazine, chronicled black life in Birmingham, which had become known as ‘‘Bombingham’’ for the violence that plagued it during the civil rights movement.

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A relative stopped him on the street, told him of the bombing, and sent Mr. McNair to the hospital. His wife was unharmed. At first he took comfort as he scoured a list of injured parishioners and did not find his daughter’s name. Then he was escorted to a room with the lifeless bodies of four girls.

‘‘I saw a little foot sticking out from under one of the sheets. A scarred patent-leather shoe covered with dust,’’ he later said, according to ‘‘Carry Me Home,’’ Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the tumult in Birmingham in 1963. ‘‘I suppose every little girl’s foot looks about the same, but I knew it was Denise.”

The deaths of Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But for years, Mr. McNair rarely spoke of his daughter’s murder as he rose to become one of the first black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction and a Jefferson County commissioner.

‘‘I didn’t want anybody to ever think I was using Denise to move myself up the line,’’ he later told the Birmingham News.

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When Mr. McNair left the county commission in 2001, he was roundly admired. Several years later, he was convicted on federal corruption charges stemming from a $3 billion overhaul of the sewer system. His imprisonment, and ultimate release, prompted an emotional reckoning with what Birmingham had taken from his family, what he had given to the city, and what mercy he was owed in return.

Mr. McNair died May 8 at home in Birmingham. He was 93. The cause was cancer, said his daughter Lisa.

‘‘I think Chris should be remembered as someone who suffered unimaginable tragedy in the 1960s, but had the resolve to stay in Birmingham,’’ said Senator Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, who prosecuted two of the church bombers decades after the fact and later represented Mr. McNair during his legal travails. Mr. McNair tried ‘‘to do his best to make it a better place,’’ Jones continued, ‘‘and he did.’’

Jewell Christopher McNair was the oldest of 12 children in a farming family. He served in the Army during World War II before receiving an agronomy degree in 1949 from what is now Tuskegee University. The next year, he married Maxine Pippen. Carol Denise, their first child, was born in 1951.

The McNairs gave Denise what McWhorter described as a comfortable, enriching life, with a piano and dance lessons. They sought to teach her that not all whites were racist, but Denise cried, according to an account from McWhorter, when Mr. McNair took her to a five-and-dime store and was forced to explain why she could not sit at the counter for a hot dog.

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‘‘Remember, baby, what we told you about those few mean white people?’’ he told her. ‘‘Well, those few people don’t want you to buy a hot dog in a five-and-ten-cent store in Birmingham, Alabama.’’

Even after his daughter’s death, Mr. McNair sought to be a unifying figure. He invited Joseph Ellwanger, his white Lutheran minister, to participate in the funeral for Denise and two of the other girls.

‘‘Chris was somebody who wanted to communicate a message to the world,’’ Ellwanger said. ‘‘He wanted the world to know that the black community was not rising up against the white community because of this bombing.’’

Mr. McNair and his wife had two more daughters. In 1970, as Birmingham sought to overcome its past, his advocacy helped it win an All-America City Award sponsored by Look magazine.