Birmingham church bombing: 50th Anniversary – Lisa McNair; Dianne Braddock

In separate conversations, McNair and Braddock comment on the 50th anniversary of the event that galvanized the civil rights movement in the U.S.

Lisa McNair and Dianne Braddock were among those in attendance recently when President Obama signed legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to four young girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. McNair's 11-year-old sister, Denise McNair, and Braddock's 14-year-old sister, Carole Robertson, were two of the four whose lives were claimed in the explosion in the church basement just 18 days after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. [Two other girls—Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14­—also lost their lives on September 15, 1963.] McNair, born in 1964, and Braddock, who has clear recollections of that day, have both expressed support of the medal honor for the four victims.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Lisa McNair’s sister, Denise, was only 11 years old which made her the youngest when her life was cut short by the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Lisa is in Washington this week for the commemoration of that event. Lisa, as always, good to talk to you.

Lisa McNair: Good to talk to you, Tavis.

Tavis: How are your mom and them?

McNair: They’re doing good.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that this – I know one never closes on the death of a loved one like you close on a house, but I hope that there is some bittersweet in this commemoration in that these four little girls are finally getting your sister, one of the four, getting the recognition they deserve with this Congressional Gold Medal. It is the highest honor that any civilian in the country can receive, so I know they have to at least be heartened by the recognition that their baby is getting.

McNair: Oh, yes. They are just so excited and so moved and so grateful of this honor and the fact that it’s, you know, nationwide and so many people will learn their stories and it keeps their memory alive.

Tavis: Yeah. I know you travel around the country a lot speaking to young people. The violence against young people today is much different than the violence that was visited upon your sister and the other three girls 50 years ago. When you talk to young people about your sister and about this sad moment in the nation’s history, what are you telling them?

McNair: Oh, wow. Well, I tell them how important it is to know this part of our history because it is our shared American history and, if we don’t learn it, we’re destined to repeat the bad parts of it. And I also do that when I meet with students who are Sojourn to the Past, which is an organization that preaches – not preaches – but it espouses nonviolence in the movement and teaches young people about that ’cause they don’t know anything ’cause it’s not in our history books.

Tavis: What kind of reactions do you get all these years later from young people when they hear the story of your sister and the other three who were killed in the basement of this church while they were in Sunday School?

I mean, I’m asking what kind of response you get ’cause we live in a world where young people are so anesthetized to violence now. They see it all the time. It’s in videogames and movies. I’m just trying to get a sense of whether or not the story hits them. Does it resonate?

McNair: It does. It resonates in a way that’s different because they can’t imagine that that really happened. Like when we travel on these trips with the students on Sojourn, you know, after the first couple of days, they’re like this really happened? People really did that? People tried to keep people from going to school? People wouldn’t let people vote and, you know, beat them up ’cause they wanted the right to vote? It’s just astonishing to them. They really almost can’t grasp that that actually happened in this country.

Tavis: Let me ask a personal question. We’ve spent a lot of time together here and there over the years with you and, of course, your mom and dad who I love to death. Give me some sense as a daughter how you would describe the journey that your parents have been on all these years with this in their rearview mirror. Give me some sense of how you would describe again the route your parents – the journey they’ve had to walk.

McNair: My parents are wonderful. They’re just wonderful, God-fearing, loving people and I, you know, applaud them because they did a great job with me and my sister. You know, they could have taken this terrible thing that happened and espouse a lot of bitterness in our household and our family, but that’s totally opposite of what they did.

You know, they espoused a lot of love. They never tell us to hate white people. They taught us to love everybody as Christ loves us all and to take each person, you know, one person at a time. I think people think of us as being a civil rights family, so that includes a lot of blackness, but I think it includes a lot of everything for us.

Our lives are very integrated. There were white people who were close family friends all the time and we got exposed to a lot of different things and a lot of people. So I think it helped us to be really open-minded, inclusive people in our lives now.

Tavis: Because of what happened to Denise, did you ever feel like your parents were being in any way overprotective of you as you grew up?

McNair: Probably a few times there, yeah. But they didn’t do it to the point of insanity.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Your father, of course, went on to be a great public servant there in the city and it is amazing to me every time I think of your father’s story how, to your point, he did not allow this to embitter him, but he offered himself up as a public servant and, for so many years, such a good part of his life was spent, you know, serving people throughout Birmingham and the county. Give me some sense of why you think your father chose to do that when he could have, to your point, been very, very angry.

McNair: I believe he talked about being of service and being a servant to others. And he just was like that. He is like that now and he loves people and wants to be a help. I think it’s because he comes from a little small town in Arkansas and I think, coming to the big city, he just enjoyed meeting people and getting to know them.

He was a milkman early on in his career, so he got to see people and know what their needs were and their plights were. And I think in politics was his way of being there to help others because he knew so many people and still has a love for people.

Tavis: So, finally here, this Sunday, of course, is the actual anniversary, 50 years later. What will you and your family be doing this Sunday to commemorate?

McNair: There will be a lot of family coming in, so we’re excited about seeing a lot of friends and family from all over the country coming and staying with us. And we will be going to the church. The church is having a memorial service on that Sunday. And the day before, they’re actually doing an unveiling of statues of the girls ’cause there’s never been a statue.

Tavis: Oh, wonderful.

McNair: And right after the statues, the Four Little Girls’ Memorial Fund, fourgirlsmemorialfund.org, is a living legacy that has sent more than 70 students to college in the last 30 years of its existence, and we consider that to be the living legacy of Denise, Carole, Addie May and Cynthia. And that’s gonna be Saturday night. So we’re excited about that.

Tavis: You got a busy weekend to go, so I’m gonna let you get out of here and get started on your weekend. Give my love to your parents, Maxine and Chris McNair, and, of course, love to you. And thank you for the opportunity to talk to you on what I know is a busy weekend and a bittersweet weekend. But thank you for your time, Lisa.

McNair: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Coming up, a conversation with Dianne Braddock. Stay with us.

Dianne Braddock was a college sophomore when her sister, Carole Robertson, was murdered by a bomb planted in the 16th Street Baptist Church by white supremacists. She joins us now from Washington where she is also taking part in the 50th anniversary commemorations. Dianne, an honor to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.

Dianne Braddock: Well, thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Five decades is a long time. Does it seem like 50 years?

Braddock: Yeah, I guess, in a lot of ways, it does seem like 50 years when you carry that kind of pain in your heart. It has seemed like 50 years.

Tavis: How is it that you have navigated carrying that pain for 50 years, losing your sister in this most horrific of ways?

Braddock: Well, I had to just go on and live my life and try to make the best of my life and raise my children, my two daughters. And I couldn’t wallow in a lot of pity because that was not the image that I wanted them to see of me.

Of course, they know all about everything that happened and it probably led me to do a whole lot more Black history and talking about civil rights and what it was like growing up in 1963 in Birmingham, probably more than I would have. But you have to move on and you have to live your life and try to make the best of a bad situation.

Tavis: How did losing your sister at such a young age impact the way you’ve raised your daughters?

Braddock: Well, I always wanted them to be close and kind to each other because the biggest thing that I miss is not having my sister with me now. There was five years difference in me and Carole. She’s five years younger, so at that time, we went a lot of places together; we did a lot of things together. But now I feel like as adults it would have been a totally different relationship.

And so I miss that and I always remind my daughters and I sometimes had to remind my mother in her relationship with her sister that you have a sister that’s living and you must always honor that bond and that relationship.

Tavis: I had a chance to know your mother, as you well know, while she lived.

Braddock: Yes.

Tavis: And I thought about her earlier today in preparing for this conversation, wondering how she might feel about the recognition that her baby is about to receive, that the whole nation will see. What do you think she’d say about this moment?

Braddock: Well, she would be really in awe and I think she would feel, you know, the same way that I do, that she would be so happy that it’s happening, a final recognition, a thank you, I think, from the country to say we recognize your pain and we know that nothing can ever replace your loved ones, but a recognition that their lives were, as many people say, the catalyst for a lot of civil rights activities, the voting rights law, civil rights, even equal housing acts.

So many laws were passed right after their death and it was a catalyst ’cause people were sitting back silently allowing all of those atrocities to go on in the south. Not only Birmingham, but many southern cities.

So I think my mother would be very happy to know that, even at 50 years, the death and the pain that we suffered was being acknowledged and sort of a thank you from the country for what happened in terms of moving the country forward with the civil rights legislation.

Tavis: It’s not just the country saying thank you. You were standing in the Oval Office next to a president who signed this document who happens to be an African American. What was going through your head when you’re standing there and the president, this Black man, is signing this document and your sister was killed by white supremacists 50 years ago in the south?

Braddock: Well, it’s real interesting because the president, I’ve found to be a very humble servant. He acknowledged the fact that it was probably because of the civil rights act and all of the laws that were passed after their deaths that he’s in the position where he is.

And he’s a very strategic person because he had the Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, from Mobile, Alabama. He had Eric Holder and his wife. Eric Holder’s wife had a sister. Her name is Sharon Malone. Vivian Malone integrated the University of Alabama. He had all these Alabama people.

He had the minister from the 16th Street Baptist Church. He had Doug Jones who prosecuted the last case and the mayor of Birmingham along with Terrence Sewell, who we have to give a lot of credit for spearheading this effort and none of us probably would be where we are if it hadn’t been for that terrible act.

Tavis: It is amazing that 50 years later it is a Sunday that you commemorate the loss of these four girls and what it meant to the civil rights movement and to the nation since they were killed in Sunday School 50 years ago. So history is full of ironies.

But I’m glad to have you on the program. I wish under different circumstances, but I’m so delighted to know that this honor has come this way for you and your other families. And to the extent you can, just to try to enjoy it this weekend. Try to breathe it in.

Braddock: I will. I will. Thank you. It’s always good to be with family.

Tavis: Thank you, Dianne. Take care of yourself now.

Braddock: Thank you.

Tavis: All right. And that’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from Los Angeles and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: September 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm