The sister she never knew: Lisa McNair shares family’s story in wake of tragic bombing

Sept. 15 will forever be etched in the mind of the McNair family. That’s the day, at 10:22 a.m. in 1963, that their family changed forever.

When Denise McNair was born, parents Chris and Maxine already considered her their miracle. Maxine had trouble conceiving, and Denise would be the first of three children.

On that fateful date, when Denise was 11, she and her friends were gathered at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham ahead of Sunday School class.

Little did they know, Ku Klux Klan members had planted a bomb at the church. When that bomb went off, Denise perished alongside 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Their deaths marked a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement but that blast was a lot more personal for Lisa McNair, who lost a chance to bond with her big sister.

Lisa never got a chance to hear her sister’s voice, her laugh. Could never spend time at the dinner table pouring over homework, or hours on the couch watching TV or talking about boys.

Although she never met her, Lisa’s parents made sure she and her sister Kim always felt a close connection to Denise.

“(Denise) had a lot of cute clothes,” Lisa McNair said. “I have a picture in my book of me going to school. I have the dress on that she wore. Daddy and Mamma did not get rid of any of her things. They are in two trunks in the garage, except for those things that we donated to the Civil Rights Institute.”

Lisa was born the year after Denise had her life taken away. Four years later, Kim came along. Their parents always kept a picture of Denise in a prominent place in their home.

From a young age, the girls knew why their sister wasn’t there.

They would often visit her final resting place. But at times, that was too much for their mother, Lisa McNair said.

“There was a lot of pain,” she said. “They never got over it. They never did. Sometimes my mom, when we were little, would take us to the cemetery with her. Sometimes she would cry and sometimes she would stare.”

Lisa McNair said her family doesn’t hold any hate in their hearts for the men responsible for killing the girls. Instead, that same faith Denise was well on her way to learning helped them move forward.

“They always honored her by being wonderful people and by telling us that we were not allowed to hate,” Lisa McNair said. “But we had to love. They could have chosen to really hate all white people, but they chose not to do that. They told us to love everyone like Christ loves us.”

Lisa McNair said her father was a civil rights photographer who was hired by Ebony and Jet magazines as a freelance photographer who covered the South. He would often take pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and the marches, sit-ins and peaceful protests that took place during that time.

Chris and Maxine have passed on now, but Lisa McNair’s mission is the same: Keeping her sister’s memory alive.

In fact, she said when she was cleaning up the family home a few years ago, she found a diary that belonged to Denise.

During her speaking engagements, Lisa McNair discusses her sister’s murder, but she also ensures she gets across her message of reconciliation and love.

Fast forward to today, and the same emotions experienced in the 1960s are still being felt by many all across the country, as our nation still witnesses the brutal deaths of Black people at the hands of police.

Lisa McNair said the solution to those senseless acts of violence starts with everyone mirroring the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent civil rights figures.

“We have got to keep the humanity of each one of us connected so we don’t forget that,” she said. “Daddy would never say in our private space, ‘oh, all white people act like this’, or ‘all Black people act like this’ when no one is around. But he would always say ‘human beings do this’ and ‘human beings do that.’ He understood the basic nature that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all need to be helping and supporting one another. We cannot hate each other.”

That’s the lesson Lisa McNair said is the best way people can make sure her sister’s short life as a lasting impact.

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