Lisa McNair is the younger sister of Denise McNair, one of four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sunday, September 15, 1963.
Lisa would not be born until a year later, and as she mentions, her birth itself was a wonderful event. The McNairs were certain they wouldn’t be able to have any more children after Denise, but Lisa and her sister Kim showed up and it brought some comfort.
Of course, Lisa didn’t know Denise, but growing up as the sister of one of the martyred girls affected her life, perpetually and in every way imaginable.
This life has not been one of deprivation or sensationalism, but it is undeniably singular and has a story to tell, with some unusual wrinkles.
“Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew” is Lisa’s memoir of life, told in the form of 40 letters to her sister.
At the center of this story is a kind of paradox.
After the bombing, after the Selma March, the March on Washington, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, life became less strictly segregated in Alabama. And Lisa was the beneficiary of this release. As she tells us – in fact tells Denise – in these letters, thanks in part to Denise’s sacrifice, she is living Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of a freer and more open society.
From year three, Lisa’s parents sent her to Advent School in Birmingham, where she was one of the few black pupils. She is not discriminated against. On the contrary, Lisa is treated with respect and friendship by everyone at Advent.
The difficulties come when, over the years, she finds herself “much more comfortable with white people and white culture than with black people”.
Over time, Lisa’s speech patterns, her accent changed. She lost touch with black music, dance moves, slang.
During those years, the 70s and 80s, she was criticized by out-of-school black friends for not being black enough. She writes: “I have sometimes been criticized, berated, ostracized and even called a ‘white girl’. ”
For a moment, she didn’t mind.
She considered leaving her blackness behind and staying in the white world. She had become, in her own words, an unwitting “pioneer” in this regard.
But integration in Alabama had not evolved to allow romance. Her white school friends wouldn’t date her, wouldn’t have her as a girlfriend.
Plus, there could be no anonymity for her in Birmingham, especially after Spike Lee produced the 1997 documentary ‘4 Little Girls’, a national sensation.
In several letters to Denise, Lisa expands on other areas where the abandonment of certain segregational structures has affected the black community. Many black-owned businesses have suffered because their longtime customers have started shopping at white-owned stores now that they can.
Change brings consequences, both intended and unintended.
McNair writes about his lack of success in college and proudly about his father’s career in Alabama politics, and candidly about the confusion he found himself in at the end of his career, it seems there is no criminal fault on his part.
McNair’s story is subtly told and nuanced, as it should be. There were dark times. She came to understand: “I was at war with who I was and I didn’t know how to solve the problem…”.
Still a devout Christian, she joined a mostly white congregation and is happy there. But that doesn’t sit well with some of his black friends.
She has now found a calling as an inspirational speaker, urging to teach more about black history, to speak to the public about the church bombing, and more generally about how we as society, “to reconcile our differences”.
Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson and eleven other Alabama authors.
“Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew”
Author: Lisa McNair
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $19.95 (cloth)