Today’s guest columnist is Lisa McNair.
My earliest memory is that white men who didn’t like her just because of the color of her skin, killed my sister.
My older sister, Denise McNair was the youngest of the four little girls killed by a bomb placed at 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.
That memory has always stayed with me ‘white men who didn’t like her just because of the color of her skin, killed my sister”.
The part about the color of her skin really stands out because it wasn’t just the color of her skin but all of the negative preconceived notions of what a Black person was. No one can dictate how they look; what race they are. But that should have nothing to do with the kind of person I am.
All whites not evil
That being my first memory could have caused me and my family to be very different people; angry, bitter, even unforgiving. However, I have had two of the best parents in the world. My parents, Chris and Maxine McNair taught us to love everyone. Hate was never an option in the McNair household.
A little known fact about our family is that my father did not attend 16th Street Baptist Church with Denise and Mother. He was a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church. This was a small church in the Titusville neighborhood. The church had a congregation that was made up of all African Americans except for five people; the pastor, his wife and their three children were White. Pastor Joseph Ellwanger and his wife are wonderful people who were very active in the movement and they really did strive for the beloved community.
My father was an elder at the church at that time and we were at the Ellwanger’s home often and they were at ours, which was a very uncommon occurrence for Blacks, and Whites back then. So for me, when I was born I knew early on that even though whites had killed Denise, all white folks were not evil.
Our country still has not gotten it right
But as you can imagine the pain of racism and that my sister was killed by an act of racial violence stays with me always. I do not think of it every waking hour but it does come to mind every day. It is a painful thing especially more than 57 years after her death we, as a country have still not gotten it right. Why is that? What have we not done as a people? I think we have not really had an honest conversation about race.
In the late 70’s when whites fled to the suburbs the conversations, for the most part, just stopped. It was like if you have two kids who are arguing and you separate them so they will cool off, but never sit them down and hash out the problem. But Blacks are in the suburbs now; we live everywhere but we have unfinished conversations that we need to have, they will not all be pleasant but they are necessary.
The Best of Enemies
Recently I watched this movie, The Best of Enemies which starred Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell who portrayed real life people, Ann Atwater, a fearless and outspoken Civil Rights activist and C. P. Ellis, a local KKK leader in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. I was really moved by this story as it is a true story and yet one more Civil Rights event that is not in our history books as Civil Rights history IS American History.
But what stays with me is that these two very unlikely people came together in an experiment organized by their city council to help solve school desegregation in their town. They and other citizens met for 10 days with a facilitator to talk, share and work out their differences and the ultimate result was they decided to desegregate their schools.
What I thought was so telling is that they sat down, and spent time together as human beings, talked out the good and the bad and then found common ground to come up with a decision that worked for all the parties involved. We VERY MUCH need to do that in every town in America today as well as here in the Greater Birmingham Area.
What those people learned in the end is that we are all human beings with so many things in common, far more in common than we have that are different. And the differences are often not bad, just different.
My Daddy was great at communicating that to us. He would always say “human beings do this or human beings do that” where others would say “all White folks do this” or “all Black folks do that”; you know, the things we say about each other behind closed doors. But Daddy never gave color to any type of behavior.
At first I didn’t understand why he would use the phrase ‘human being’ instead of attributing some type of behavior to a particular race of people. Then I realized he was right. You will find all types of behaviors in all races: good and bad, loving and evil, nice and hateful. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We must remember that if we are to move forward in this city, state and country.
Why I’m hopeful
People often ask me how do I stay hopeful especially in the climate of today. Sometimes, even though I was born after Denise was killed it feels like now how it must have felt for people of color back then, scary and very oppressive. It’s almost suffocating. But then I remember that things are very different. We have laws that we didn’t have then. We do live among each other now.
Blacks live everywhere Whites live. Our kids have grown up together, they play together, attend school together. We love and are married to each other more now than ever. I can’t name the number of times I am out shopping and I see an older White couple with a cute brown grandchild that they love. They don’t want anything bad to happen to that child; he or she is family.
I myself have so very many white friends here in Birmingham. People who would go to the ends of the world for me and my family and have done so. I attend a predominately White church and without a doubt I know those folks love me.
We have just got to remember things like that. And when we hear others say racially hateful things we have to call them on it and not be silent or laugh. We are all on this planet together. There is nowhere else for us to go. Mars is not ready yet and may never be.
We have work to do
To my White friends, you will need to take a step out of your comfort zone and learn more about your fellow citizens of color. If your closest Black friend is the maid, the janitor at your office or the one Black person who works in your office and is most likely the receptionist; start with them but you really need to know some more Black people. Learn more about Black history, the Civil Rights movement, read Black authors (past and present), watch some Black films and documentaries. If you don’t know what an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is, look it up and then visit some, we have several in our state.
Now to my Black friends, be patient with our White brothers and sisters. It will be frustrating that after all this time there is so much they still don’t know but it being frustrated with them is not going to help them learn. Be open, share your knowledge, heritage and history but share it with kindness, patience and love. It will go down so much better. We might not get another time in history like this so we need to make the best of it.
We live in the best country in the world y’all and Birmingham has some of the most amazing people you ever want to meet. It’s our city; love it and love all the people in it because after all, love is the universal language.
Lisa McNair is the younger sister of Denise McNair, victim of the 16th Street Baptist church bombing. A lifelong resident of Birmingham, Lisa is a professional photographer and national pubic speaker with a personal memoir due out in 2021. www.speaklisa.com
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.