The following is excerpted from an interview with Chris McNair, whose daughter died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1963. McNair, who later served in the state legislature, is publisher of Down Home magazine. He was interviewed by Joel Spivak of WRC Radio.
Q: Back in 1963, just a few weeks after the March on Washington, your little daughter, Denise, went to Sunday School one day, and a bomb went off and she was killed. They caught the people who did that, didn't they, Chris?
A: One man is incarcerated, but that's all, and the record points to several others. He's been in prison maybe about four or five years, and that came at the steady persistence of then- attorney general Bill Baxley, who is now lieutenant governor of the state of Alabama.
Q: At the time in Birmingham, was there a huge public outcry when that bomb went off?
A: Well, there were bombs going off before that bomb. You know, people's houses had been bombed. Arthur Shores' house--I think it'd been bombed about twice. A. D. King's home had been bombed. He was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Ensley. He was Martin's brother.
So bombing in Birmingham in that period was nothing really unusual. This was the first one somebody was hurt in, or hurt seriously in, see, and killed.
At that time we had a governor--we still have him, unfortunately--espousing enough bitterness to give the kind of impression to the people with that kind of mind that would have, in a sense, given them license to do what they did. And I can't for the life of me understand how the electorate of Alabama in these modern times could be so asinine to have reelected that same man to office again.
Q: I wonder now, 20 years later, if things have changed for the better in Birmingham. Could a thing like that happen again?
A: It could happen anywhere. Not just Birmingham--it could happen anywhere in the nation. I mean, it just happened to have happened in Birmingham. That's one of the prime reasons I never left Birmingham. I realized then that it could happen anywhere in the nation.
Those of us who are elected follow a formula that has already been prescribed. It's just like a chef going to a new hotel or a new restaurant. He's got to follow the same recipes that the former chef had, so his food isn't going to taste that much different from the other chef's, except he may be able to throw a dash of garlic in there every once in a while if somebody's not looking.
Now that may be the plus in having black elected officials, but that's fairly true all across the nation. You know, you've got black mayors in some of the major cities, and you've got them in some of the smaller cities down South, but when they are sworn in they swear to uphold the tenets that have already been prescribed by previous legislators and legislatures and city councils, and what have you.
And another thing, with the exception of Mayor Bradley in California, most of the black mayors of the major cities are mayors simply because a majority of their population is black. So the country itself still hasn't purged itself of racism in the sense of "Let's elect somebody because he's qualified." I'm not saying these men are not qualified. I think they are very much so. But it isn't because the country has changed that they are mayors. It might be quite the contrary: because other people have gotten their hats and left the inner cities, and these people, by virtue of their abdication, have left it where black people could elect somebody to office.
Q: Are you going to tell me, Chris, that you haven't perceived any change at all in the 20 years since the bombing in Birmingham?
A: In order to say that there's change, you have to understand this: change happens regardless, so what we have to talk about is the quality of change. Has the change been what it should have been?
Q: And has it?
Q: How so?
A: Well, you see, I just talked about the elected officials, and we get excited about that, we get excited about being able to go buy a hamburger wherever we choose. My children can hardly fathom the idea that there was a time when you couldn't, that there was a time when there were black water fountains and white water fountains, and black lavatories and white lavatories, and what have you.
But when it comes to the economics, I am not convinced in my mind that the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is not even wider than it was in the '60s, and I am not about to blame all this on the Reagan administration, or on the Carter administration. If Carter had been reelected, much of what has taken place in the country today would have still taken place. All of it is not really a black and white issue. Some of it--in fact, most of it at this time--is the pure economics of this country.
Q: Chris, there are probably a lot of kids listening to us talk right now--black children, I mean--who have absolutely no comprehension of what things were like 20 years ago for black people, especially in places like Birmingham, Alabama. I mean, you just told me your own kids don't even realize what it was like.
A:4 No, they don't, no. My daughter just entered the University of Alabama this Sunday, and she has a white roommate, and, you know, she thinks nothing of it, could care less. . . . Autherine Lucy (the first black to enter the University of Alabama), to her, is a history figure.
Q: It's just amazing to sit here and remember and think that there are people who have absolutely no comprehension of that whole period--none whatever. They weren't a part of it; they don't realize the emotions that were flying around this country at the time.
And nowadays in Birmingham, there is a biracial committee that gets together every Monday morning to talk about these things, and of course . . .
A: This has been going on since the '60s. I was a part of that committee way back in '71, when we went out to Portland to apply for Birmingham to be an All-America City, and I worked to help make Birmingham an All- America City. And we were successful. My feeling, then and now, was that Birmingham is not that far removed from any other city in the country. It's had a lot of bad publicity, and it's got caught up in some of the things that it's done. But it is an American city, and to put it in kind of a fish bowl makes it very visible for the rest of the nation. A big reason I remain here is that I intend to do the things that I can do to make it a better place, and to make it what an All-America City should be.