His eldest child, an 11-year-old girl named Denise McNair, was brutally taken from him and their family by a group of homegrown terrorists known as the Ku Klux Klan in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Ala.,’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Now, Chris McNair—father, husband and history-making political figure in his own right—has died at his home in the city he never abandoned despite the pain it brought him. He was 93. The cause was cancer, his daughter Lisa McNair told the Washington Post.
On the day of the bombing, Sept. 15, 1963, Chris McNair was at the Lutheran church he attended. The sound of the blast at the Baptist church his wife and first-born attended could be heard across town. McNair, then a milkman and freelance photographer, recalled wondering if the sound was thunder.
It wasn’t long before he learned the horrible truth: that his daughter Denise and three other girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the African American house of worship.
Their deaths spurred passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the years that followed, McNair, with his wife, Maxine, had two more daughters, and McNair made history by becoming one of the first black state legislators in Alabama since Reconstruction and a Jefferson County commissioner.
He rarely spoke publicly of the loss of his eldest daughter, later telling the Birmingham News: “I didn’t want anybody to ever think I was using Denise to move myself up the line.”
During his time in office as Jefferson County Commissioner, the feds reopened their probe of the 1963 blast, and two KKK members were convicted of the murders, the Birmingham News reports. Two other Klan members were named co-conspirators posthumously.
In 2006, a few years after McNair left office, legal trouble found him. He was convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges involving contractors on a sewer project and spent a little over two years in federal prison.
He was free in time to observe the 50th anniversary of the 1963 bombing.
“What I hope they will remember him for is not his transgressions, not his failings. What I hope they’ll remember Chris for is someone who stayed in Birmingham, despite an unimaginable loss, in a most horrific of circumstances, at a time when he could have easily picked up and left Birmingham, Alabama,” said state Sen. Doug Jones, who served as McNair’s personal defense attorney. “He and [McNair’s wife] Maxine stayed behind to build a better community, to build a better state, to build a better Birmingham.”
Funeral services for McNair, who died May 8, will be held Friday at the church that so marked his life, the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Survivors include his wife, two daughters and 10 siblings.