Spike Lee’s film 4 Little Girls (1997) documented in vivid detail the events leading up to and following the September 15, 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Ku Klux Klan members placed bombs at the church, where, at the time, a strategy meeting was being held for local Blacks to fight Jim Crow laws and other injustices. Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair were all killed in that blast.
“It happened to be four children who happened to be in the [church] bathroom at the same time, and happened to be murdered,” Lisa McNair told the MSR after her February 28 appearance at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in downtown Minneapolis. McNair, one of Denise’s two younger sisters, spoke about this as part of MCTC’s “Untold Truths” series during Black History Month in February.
“It’s a fantastic portrayal,” Lisa said of Lee’s movie that was shown the day before her appearance.
“She [Denise] was [her parents’] only child they had for many years. Almost a year to the day she was killed, I was born,” McNair told the 100-plus audience, including a group of St. Paul middle school students. She and her sister, over the years, learned about their slain sister through recollections from their parents, family members and others.
“Denise was an activist in her own way,” Lisa explained. She often wanted to take part in local protests, but her parents felt she was too little and young. “She had a real sense of right and wrong, from what I learned about her from family members and friends.”
“I miss not having my big sister,” Lisa disclosed. “I think it would have been really cool to have a big sister to talk to.”
The early Sunday morning bombing in 1963 shocked everyone. It “struck people not just in the South but all over,” Lisa reiterated. “Killing children was bad. Killing children in church was egregious. You are supposed to be safe in church.”
Expectedly, Denise’s death affected her family: “There were many days when [her mother] would be crying. Dad didn’t really heal from it totally. Relatives tell me he didn’t cry until six months [after Denise’s death],” Lisa recalled.
A very close cousin of Denise might have been affected harder than most, Lisa continued. “They were always together. Lynn’s little brother was sick that day and my auntie didn’t take Lynn to church…Lynn never got over it.
“I always wanted to know more about Denise [but] she would never talk about her. She died [a few years ago], an alcoholic and drug addict,” Lisa said. Her parents are still alive: Mama is 89 [and] has Alzheimer. Daddy is 92 [and] has stroke-related dementia,” she noted.
Four men were later charged with the bombing. The first conviction came in 1977, and two more in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The fourth man charged died before facing trial.
Lisa said then-state attorney general Doug Jones, now a U.S. senator, led the prosecution team in the final three cases. “Doug Jones did a great job in bringing those fellows to justice. He will be forever a friend of ours,” she noted.
She stressed that despite her sister’s tragic death, her parents “instructed that we love everybody. [Although] my sister was killed by White people, we could’ve been that family that hated just for the sake of hating. People dislike people for all kinds of reasons but to [kill] someone because of the color of their skin is very wrong.”
It wasn’t called that back then, but the 1963 bombing would have been classified as an act of domestic terrorism, Lisa responded during a Q&A session.
“I don’t live in a fairy tale world,” said Lisa, who works as an office manager for a non-profit organization in Birmingham. She’s also a part-time photographer, and a co-founder of a non-profit group that conducts civil rights history tours.
“My sister and I had a talk [in 2013] and we decided that I would speak to groups” about Denise, Lisa said. She is currently working on a memoir dedicated to her sister and hopes to complete it later this year. “Since Denise’s death, things in this country certainly have gotten better. But lately harsh words [and] phrases we’ve heard back in the day…It seems we’re regressing instead of progressing. This is really bothering me,” Lisa stated.
“My message is just love and embracing people,” Lisa told the MSR afterward.
“I think it’s important for our students to hear history, and it’s good for them to see history alive,” Hazel Park Middle School Assistant Principal Kenneth Turner told the MSR of the 16 eighth graders that heard McNair’s speech and met with her afterward.
All four girls, who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by former President Barack Obama, have names and stories that should be told, MCTC African American Empowerment Program Coordinator Marcellus Davis told us. “Their martyrdom doesn’t exist if we don’t tell their story in its entirety,” he advised.
“We got to share the story,” Lisa McNair stated. “I feel that it is my job to carry on the story. I find that a huge, but wonderful, responsibility,” she concluded.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org