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Celebrating Chris McNair: Father, Friend, Husband and Legend

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Lisa McNair speaks during funeral services for her dad, Chris McNair, at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (Ameera Steward Photo, The Birmingham Times)

By Ameera Steward

The Birmingham Times

Jewell Christopher (Chris) McNair was remembered on Friday as a remarkable man whose love and forgiveness were stronger than one of the most unspeakable tragedies in the city’s history.

Mr. McNair’s farewell was held in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the same place where his daughter, Denise and three other girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. On Friday, clergy, elected officials, family members of the three other girls who died in the bombing, packed the church to say good-bye to Mr. McNair who passed away on May 8 at the age of 93.

“If anyone had the right to turn their back on Birmingham, and its checkered history, it was Chris McNair…but even after his daughter’s death and even after the FBI closed the file in 1968, Chris stayed in Birmingham,” said Sen. Doug Jones, D-AL, who helped bring the church bombers to justice as a then-U.S. Attorney in the 80’s.

“Chris McNair was full of the love that forgives, but it didn’t come easy,” Jones continued. “In sharing that love that forgives . . . he came to represent Birmingham and Alabama to a much wider world, a world that had only seen and remembered Birmingham in images of black and white, of beatings in the Greyhound bus station, of fire hoses and dogs – Chris represented something new and different.”

Jones said that Mr. McNair represented “a different Birmingham, a city of hope, a city of forgiveness, a city of reconciliation, a city of progress” that tried desperately to put its segregationist history behind it.

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‘We Are Humans’

Mr. McNair’s daughter, Lisa, said she remembered a quote from her father in the aftermath of the church bombing. It was in a book titled “Free At Last.”

“He said, ‘We must not let this change us into something that we are not. We are humans.’ Because of those words daddy was credited with helping keep calm in the city of Birmingham after Denise was killed,” said Lisa, who recalled that she had never heard that quote before. “In my whole life, daddy never told us, that was a real wow moment.”

But that quote was how she was raised, McNair said.

“He never wanted us to be angry or have hate in our hearts or hate the killers that killed Denise. He always wanted us to be the best we could, and see that in others,” said McNair.

After her sister was killed Mr. McNair was often asked why he didn’t leave Birmingham “but daddy would reply, ‘where would I go? I would still be a black man no matter where I am. And anyway, this is home, and you have to fight for your home,’” said his daughter.

McNair said she’s experienced another reason why the family stayed. “I have a week like this past week, where I felt so much love and received it from people from the city and all over the state. I can’t get that anywhere else.  Birmingham is truly my home,” she said. “I love Birmingham and Birmingham loves the McNairs. Daddy helped make this happen and I thank him for that.”

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Numerous Tributes

Among the numerous tributes were those from Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who was not in attendance, but wrote a letter that said in part, “As the mayor of this great city it is always an honor and a privilege to recognize those who invested their time, their talents in building a better Birmingham and all of us…are compelled to realize that Christopher McNair did just that.

“While he served our community in a myriad of ways, we will remember him most as a father. At a time when he had a right to bare anger, instead he sought compassion. When his heart could have worn unrelenting resentment instead, he sought peace. When he could have called for an eye for an eye instead, he worked and walked hand and hand. It is days…like this that we need the soul of Christopher McNair.”

Joseph Ellwanger, who was pastor when Mr. McNair attended Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Titusville, said the life of Christ shined through Mr. McNair at it’s brightest when he and his wife were at their darkest moments.

“The amazing thing is that precisely when it was a day that all of us, and especially the African-American community, in this city was tempted to return viciousness for viciousness and hatred for hatred, Chris McNair….was on TV and said ‘the culprits that committed this…crime need to be brought to judgment but we need to exercise restraint and we need to make it clear that we treat every person in this city, black and white…with the dignity that they have as God’s people.’”

Robert Earl Kelly, owner of Kelly Natural Gas Pipeline, talked about how close his father and Mr. McNair were.

When Kelly told his father that Mr. McNair had passed and that he was going to speak, his father said “’you tell those folks that another good soldier has left the field, and also you tell them don’t fret because he gone home…and be sure to let them know Chris was a good man,’” he said.

Stacey Roudebush, who was in attendance, said she worked with Lisa “and just wanted to be here to [provide] support as a friend . . .I’m fortunate to be here and to know the family, the McNair family is just close to my heart and just fantastic people,” she said. “I’m feeling for them right now as they’re going through this and so it’s just really special to be able to be here.”

State Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, said Mr. McNair was a political icon.

“When I was first running for office in 2002, he was one of those people that I had to go and sit down with and get his blessing and it was so amazing to sit with him,” she said. “He gave me the political road map, told me who else I needed to talk to, was very supportive in that aspect of it, I learned so much. It was like sitting at the feet of history, talking to him.”

Coleman said the nation needs leaders like Mr. McNair, who taught his daughters and others not to hate. “We’ve lost a lot of that,” Coleman said.

Born In Small Town

Mr. McNair was born in 1925 in the tiny town of Fordyce, Arkansas, the first of 12 children. He met his future wife Maxine Pippen when both were attending college at the Tuskegee Institute in 1945. Chris served in the Army in the waning days of World War II, and both graduated in 1949. They married the following year, she got pregnant and they moved closer to her mother’s home in Birmingham. Their oldest daughter Carol Denise was born in 1951.

Mr. McNair taught at A.H. Parker High School and in 1962 opened a photography studio in Titusville. He was a photographer for 50 years and was known as one of the few black photographers in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In addition to taking pictures of prominent people like Rosa Parks and events like the residential bombings in the 60s, Mr. McNair also served as Birmingham businessman extraordinaire A.G. Gaston’s official portrait photographer.

Mr. McNair’s studio later became a multi-faceted business including a frame shop, art gallery, gift shop and event facility.

After the death of his daughter he became a founding member of the Four Little Girls Memorial Fund which provides scholarships to students who exemplify tolerance, understanding and unity within the community.

In 1986, Mr. McNair was elected to the Jefferson County Commission and served until 2001. During his time in office, the federal investigation into the 1963 bombing was reopened. As a result, two members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of the murders, the two others who had passed away were named as co-conspirators.

Mr. McNair was convicted of bribery and conspiracy involving contractors for the Jefferson County sewer expansion project in 2006 and pleaded guilty to another count a year later. He was released early from prison in 2013 in time for him to participate in events honoring the 50th anniversary of the bombing that killed his daughter.

Mr. McNair leaves behind a wife of 68 years, Thelma Maxine Pippen McNair; his daughters, Lisa, and Kimberly Brock; as well as 10 brothers and sisters.