Lisa McNair Connects with Selma residents

Published 5:20 am Tuesday, October 3, 2023

By  Christine Weerts

Special to The Selma Times-Journal

Lisa McNair grew up in the shadow of a terrible tragedy, one that captured the world’s attention. And she has opened the door to those challenges, struggles, and faith-filled experiences in her talk at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library on Sept. 29.

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McNair, 59, was born a year after her older sister Denise – the sister she never knew – was killed in the Klan bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept 15, 1963. Denise, 11, was the youngest of four girls– Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins– killed while at church getting ready for “Youth Sunday.”

McNair shared with wit and wisdom her life story from her new memoir, “Dear Denise, Letters to the Sister I Never Knew” with a reflective and responsive audience at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library’s Lunch at the Library series.

“Everything she said was excellent; it’s one of the best talks we have ever had,” said Jan Parker, a librarian and event planner with the Selma-Dallas County Public Library. “I could have listened to her all day. The stories she told were amazing; so many lessons to be learned. The turnout was great too; we had a full house.”

McNair’s very personal talk focused on how different her integrated, and often predominantly white, world was from her sister’s segregated one, and how difficult it was to build true community. She was amazingly transparent as she shared the struggles of trying to discover who she was and how she fit  – and “that lasted a long time.”

 This was especially difficult after attending a white private grade school and transitioning to a Black high school. 

“I had to learn to be comfortable in my own skin and know that Black was beautiful too,” McNair said, describing her book as “my journey to find my place in the world.”

 “It was a long process,” said McNair, who credits her faith as a saving grace.  “One of the reasons I wrote this book is to help others going through the same thing. 

McNair’s birth on Sept. 19, 1964  brought much joy to her parents, Maxine and Chris McNair, who now had another baby girl in their home after Denise, their only child Denise was murdered in the racist bombing. A younger sister, Kim, was born four years later.

Even though hate had killed their daughter, Denise, McNair’s parents taught Lisa and Kim to love, not hate, and modeled it in their lives and faith; McNair’s mother as a public school teacher, and her father was a photographer and state legislator. Lisa 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.

Dianne Harris, a foot soldier who attended Lisa’s talk, said she was moved by her emphasis on forgiveness – especially as she told the story of meeting a woman whose father was one of the Klan men who planted the bomb that killed her sister.

Too often, Lisa said, racism is “so painful for Black people and so shameful for white people that it is swept under the rug. We need to bring it to light so healing can begin.”


She shared that this Sept. 15 –  the 60th anniversary of the church bombing – she and her sister invited friends back to their house in Birmingham after services at the church. “It was a rainbow gathering. There were Black people, whites, Hispanics and Asian people all talking and sharing. I don’t ever want to live in a world that is small (and segregated). I need variety to breathe. At the end of the day, we are all humans with more things in common than different; we just need to keep loving one another.”