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

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama Wikipedia

It is a moment that divides before and after. Less than 24 hours earlier, the two sisters at the center of the photograph were worrying over house curtains. Now they fear that the 11-year-old daughter and only child of Maxine Pippen McNair (center, right) lies across the street, buried in the rubble of what had been the ladies’ lounge of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Sunday, September 15, 1963, was the most sensational day yet in a city historically embarrassed by dubious superlatives; Birmingham, which called itself the “City of Churches,” was also known as the most segregated city in America. Maxine’s daughter, Denise McNair, and three friends had been primping for their role in Youth Day services when dynamite planted by Ku Klux Klansmen blasted them into history.

When the photograph was taken, the family knew only that Denise was missing. It is not clear whether Maxine McNair’s uncle Flozzell Pippen (barely visible in the background) had yet found Denise’s shoe amid the chunks of church wall. The Pippens were standing under the awning of the family dry-cleaning business, the Social Cleaners, where the previous May, Maxine’s sister Juanita Pippen Jones (center, left) had been rudely confronted by an officer of the Birmingham police K-9 Corps. On that day, the culmination of a month-long nonviolent campaign Martin Luther King Jr. had been waging in Birmingham, school-age demonstrators faced down fire hoses and police dogs and inspired President Kennedy to introduce federal legislation outlawing segregation.

Neither Denise nor the other murdered girls had been among the thousands of young people who had marched that spring. Although the “children’s miracle,” as their triumph came to be known, had been launched from the centrally located sanctuary of Sixteenth Street Baptist, the proud bourgeois congregation had not actively supported King’s crusade. Denise’s parents—schoolteachers like her aunt Juanita—had shielded her from the indignities of second-class citizenship, vaguely explaining that “a few white people don’t like colored children, but...most white people like all children.”

The newly hired Birmingham News photographer who captured the family’s gathering grief was Vernon Merritt III, 22, an Alabama native whose father, a businessman active in state politics, vocally detested the civil rights movement. Most of Merritt’s colleagues on the News saw the cataclysmic events of 1963 as “just an assignment,” recalled another photographer, Ed Jones.

But Merritt “really believed in the cause,” says Pam Blecha, who was married to him at the time. “He thought it was the real deal.” A few months after the church bombing, Merritt landed in Time—as the subject of a story—after a county sheriff assaulted him with a cattle prod for boarding a bus to photograph the black children integrating the public schools of Notasulga.

Merritt spent less than a year at the News, and later shot for the Black Star agency, Newsweek and Life. He covered Vietnam (and was temporarily paralyzed from sniper fire), the 1968 Memphis garbage strike that turned out to be King’s last stand, the miniskirt and the pig that played Arnold on “Green Acres.” Life assigned him to Neil Armstrong’s family at Cape Kennedy when Apollo 11 lifted off to the moon. His classic portrait of Coretta Scott King still sells as a poster.

Merritt’s divergent pursuits after Life folded as a weekly in 1972 included the founding of Equus, a glossy magazine for the horsey set, and sailing. On the morning of August 17, 2000, his sailing companion and third wife, Linda Stanley, found him in their Old Lyme, Connecticut, backyard, dead of a gunshot wound to the chest. She said he accidentally fell on the .22 rifle he had taken out to dispatch the groundhogs colonizing their property. He was 59.

This photograph was not published until last February, nearly 43 years after it was taken. Alex Cohn, a journalism student interning at the News, found the image among thousands of negatives stashed in the paper’s photography equipment room. Some had been put in envelopes labeled “Keep: Do not Sell”—a measure to keep out of national circulation material that might stoke Birmingham’s reputation as the Johannesburg of America.

Juanita Jones, now 75, said that seeing the photograph four decades after the fact made “the anger boil up in me again, that anyone could be that evil and that lowdown.” Her daughter, Lynn (the 10-year-old girl with her back to the camera), was supposed to have gone to Sunday school that day with her inseparable cousin Denise. “No, ma’am, I don’t remember all that stuff,” she told me from her home in Southern California. “I tried to block it out.”

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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