Denise McNair was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 17, 1951. On September 15, 1963, McNair and three other African-American girls were killed in a terrorist attack on the 16th Street Church. The bombing—perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan—marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Three men responsible for McNair's murder were brought to justice between 1977 and 2002.
Early Life and Death
Carole Denise McNair was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 17, 1951. She attended the 16th Street Baptist Church with her parents, Chris and Maxine McNair. On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1962, 11-year-old Denise McNair was scheduled to participate in the morning sermon. She filed into a basement room with 25 other children who were also preparing for the sermon, entitled "The Love That Forgives."
At 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded under the steps of the church. The children in the basement were the closest parishioners to the explosion site and sustained the most severe injuries. Four girls, including Denise McNair, died in the attack. There were three other fatalities: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were each 14 years old. More than 20 people were injured in the blast, which was strong enough to tear a hole in the rear wall of the church.
The act of terrorism that killed Denise McNair was motivated by racial hatred. In the months leading up to the bombing, the Civil Rights Movement had made strides in the city of Birmingham. In May 1963, city and civil rights leaders had negotiated the integration of public spaces. An upsurge in violence and terrorism followed this policy shift. The 16th Street Church, frequently used as a meeting place for leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy, was a clear target for this activity. Some white political leaders allowed and even encouraged violent acts toward African Americans. In an interview shortly before the bombing, Alabama Governor George Wallace suggested hopefully that a few "first-class funerals" might halt integration in his state.
Despite eyewitness testimony, there were no convictions in the bombing until 1977. Robert Chambliss, a member of a Ku Klux Klan group seen placing the dynamite under the church steps, was arrested in 1963, but tried only for possession of explosives without a permit. The case then remained dormant until it was reopened in 1971, during the administration of Attorney General William Baxley. Baxley obtained FBI files that contained substantive information, including the names of suspects, which had been withheld by J. Edgar Hoover in the '60s. In a later statement, the FBI maintained that their original investigation was hamstrung by the lack of witness cooperation in Birmingham.
In 1977, 73-year-old Robert Chambliss was successfully prosecuted for the murder of Denise McNair and sentenced to life in prison. Two other perpetrators, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, were tried and convicted in 2001 and 2002, respectively. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 and was never charged.
McNair Family and Legacy of the Bombing
Chris and Maxine McNair had two daughters following Denise's death. The family appears in the Spike Lee film 4 Little Girls, a documentary on the bombing and its aftermath. McNair and her fellow victims became symbols of racial violence, styled as martyrs in the struggle for civil rights. In 2013, the United States Congress awarded each girl the Congressional Gold Medal.
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