Fearing the Worst

A church is bombed. A daughter is missing. A rediscovered photograph recalls one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of the civil rights era.

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Maxine McNair, 77, has two grown daughters, both born after Denise died. Of the church bombers, she says, “I don’t hate them. I feel sorry for them.” Her husband, Chris McNair, the owner of a photography studio, became the city’s first black representative in the state legislature and was a longtime Jefferson County commissioner. Until he retired from politics in 2001, he avoided public discussion of Denise “because people would say—and did say—I was using it to advance my own cause.” As this issue of Smithsonian went to press, McNair, 80, was facing trial on charges that he accepted bribes from a sewer contractor while in office.

His lawyer, Doug Jones, is the former U.S. attorney who won convictions in 2001 and 2002 against the last two surviving Klansmen who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. A third man, Robert Chambliss, had been convicted in 1977, and he died in prison in 1985. Last October, the city finally commemorated the four Sixteenth Street dead with plaques in City Hall. Denise’s childhood friend Condoleezza Rice presided over the unveiling.


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