By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Family members, current and former public officials and area pastors gathered Saturday morning at New Hope Baptist Church in Birmingham’s West End community to celebrate the life of Maxine McNair, who died Jan. 2.
Mrs. McNair, the last surviving parent of a girl killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was 93.
Among those in attendance were former Birmingham Mayor William Bell, former U.S. Senator Doug Jones, Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway, former Alabama governor Don Siegelman and Birmingham school board President Mark Sullivan. More than a dozen representing churches were at the service in New Hope, which was McNair’s home church.
Rev. Gregory Clarke, head pastor of New Hope, said he has preached at the National Baptist Convention, the Gospel Music Workshop of America and on four continents, but none were more of an “honor” than to preach at McNair’s memorial service.
“She was a dear, beloved church member that participated with our choir and many other things that were going on as ministries here in the church,” Clarke said, “but what I cherish the most was the most wonderful attitude of someone that was positive and friendly.”
Rev. Jai Gregory Clarke, an associate minister at New Hope said McNair was a “woman of virtue.”
“We are heartbroken now because we have lost a pillar of our community, a great matriarch of the movement who laid so costly a sacrifice upon the pillar of freedom,” said Clarke in a prayer.
McNair gave her all to the community in the more than 33 years she worked for Birmingham City Schools as an elementary school teacher, said Jai Clarke.
“[McNair] gave that which was so painlessly taken from her. She gave her life to our children. She gave her life to our community. She gave her life to our church,” Jai Clarke said, still in prayer, “and now these will remain long after the phone calls, the cards and the visits have ceased.”
Dr. David Eldridge, senior pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, where McNair’s daughter Lisa is a member, highlighted Proverbs 3:5-6, a passage Lisa told him her mother loved.
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths,” the verses read.
Eldridge said McNair “not only loved the passage” but “lived” it.
“Mrs. McNair’s life reminds us that when we trust in the Lord, when we lean not on our own understanding, when we acknowledge him in all of our ways,” Eldridge said, “he will make crooked paths, that life brings us down, he will make them straight.”
Also in attendance at the memorial service were former students of McNair including Sherry Williams who said many children in McNair’s class didn’t have “a lot,” other than the bare necessities but that McNair tried to help by being a great “school mom.”
“Mrs. McNair [didn’t just point] out the fact that you didn’t have anything. Instead of giving one particular person, she gave everybody a little care package,” Williams said, “be it a hygiene package, a little apple or a piece of candy.”
Ransom Davis, who was a student of McNair’s when she taught at Center Street Elementary School, said Titusville, where the school was located, was a “village,” where teachers and children all lived close together. “If you acted up in school, the teacher may stop by your house and have a parent-teacher conference,” Davis said.
“Mrs. McNair was a prominent member of that village and encouraged and challenged each student she taught,” Davis said. “Mrs. McNair loved learning, loved each learner and loved bringing those two loves together.”
Mrs. McNair’s daughter, Denise, was killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The bombing that killed 11-year-old Denise also killed 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Rosamond Robertson, and Cynthia Dionne Wesley.
The following year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in part because of the support of those horrified by the bombing.
Mrs. Maxine Pippen McNair, was born July 29, 1928, and leaves to cherish her memory, daughters, Lisa McNair and Kimberly McNair Brock and a host of relatives and friends. Interment was held at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.