McNair to speak during Library lunch

Published 7:10 am Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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By Christine Weerts

Special to The Selma Times-Journal

Sixty years ago this month, four girls were getting ready for “youth day” at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham when a bomb set by a Klansman exploded, killing them instantly.

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Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old, were killed on Sept. 15, 1963. Collins’s sister, Sarah, was seriously injured and blinded in one eye by the deadly blast.  The girls were victims of racial hate – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called them the “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

On Thursday, Lisa McNair, a younger sister of Denise McNair, born a year after Denise’s death, will be at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library to speak on her newly published memoir, “Dear Denise, Letters to the Sister I Never Knew.”

Library officials said $15 tickets are available for this event. Lunch starts at noon. Lisa will speak at 12:30 p.m. and sell and autograph books afterward.  

“We are honored and proud to welcome Lisa to our Lunch at the Library event,” said Selma-Dallas County Executive Director Becky Nichols. “Her book, published by the University of Alabama Press, is an extraordinary collection of honest conversations with her big sister, Denise whom she never met.”

“Dear Denise” is a collection of 40 letters Lisa McNair wrote about everything that was going on in life around her – her schooling, the birth of their baby sister Kim, their father’s election to the state legislature, her sense of faith and her feelings about the rapidly changing world around her – all told from the perspective of a young woman growing into her own unique self.  Photographs accompany each letter, many taken by the sisters’ father, Chris McNair.

While Lisa grew up living through her sister’s tragic death and the sadness, pain, and loss in her family, Lisa’s message both through her talks and her book is that of resounding reconciliation and peace. It’s a truth she also learned at home. She recalls asking her mother if she was supposed to hate white people because of what they did to Denise. 

“She immediately said no that we are not supposed to hate white people. We’re supposed to love everyone like Christ loves us,” McNair said. 

Even though 60 years have passed, King’s words remind citizens that despite all our progress we still have something to learn from the girls’ death that resonates today and within the pages of Lisa’s book. At the victims’ eulogy, King said, “[The girls] have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. … They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”