Guest Post By Jacqueline Wald
We never crossed paths, Denise and I. That would have been impossible. She lived in Birmingham, Ala., and I was way up north in Marshalltown, Iowa.
We did a lot of the same things, though. We both liked dolls and belonged to a Brownie troop. We both organized skits, dance routines and performances for the neighbors in our garages. We both dreamed of husbands, children and careers.
In my life, a rewarding job, marriage and motherhood all became a reality.
Denise's life ended at age 11.
I did not know of Denise McNair until Sept. 18, 1963, the day of her death. I was in my synagogue for Sunday school when we were summoned from the classrooms to assemble in the sanctuary. The rabbi solemnly addressed us from the pulpit. His sermons often contained messages of the civil rights struggle in the South. He spoke of the need for social justice and its connections to our lives and community.
On that particular Sunday, he had the radio on in his office and heard about the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which four little girls had been killed.
"Why does this matter to us?" he asked. "Why is it important?"
As I remember, the gist of his message that day was that a crime against one group is a violation of us all. He said if you change the words "colored church" to "Jewish synagogue," one can see that mindless disregard for human life can be directed at any group. After further discussion of the day's events, we were dismissed.
Communication did not approach Internet speed in 1963. The grainy images of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair did not appear in the newspaper or television until the next day. Three of the girls were 14. Denise was 11. So was I.
In her photo, Denise wears a coat and matching hat. She is a very soft, sweet-looking child, slightly smiling. The image gripped me. I stared at the picture of her. I was incapable of looking away.
Here was a girl, just my age, blown apart by a bomb when she was in church, of all places. Had she been frightened? Did she cry out? What did it feel like to get blown up by a bomb? Did she suffer?
Ever since that day, Denise has haunted me. I have carried her with me at some level of consciousness all my life, like a lovely dream that I never got to finish.
How deeply she has been ingrained in my psyche became apparent when the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage took us to Birmingham in spring 2005. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was first on our itinerary. I sat in the sanctuary where Denise had worshipped. I saw the recessed stairway where the bomb had been planted. I saw that familiar photo of her looking out at me.
Those September events were posted on the wall in the museum area of the church basement.
Seeing it again was like reading it for the first time. I felt the heaviness, the nausea, the loss of those four little girls.
How many times I had thought of Denise over the years – on my birthdays, when I graduated from high school and college, when I cradled my newborn babies in my arms. There was the nagging, wordless sensation that she would do none of these things.
I remembered when her parents had two more daughters, young girls who would never know their older sister, Denise. I noted when Joan Baez wrote the song "Birmingham Sunday," which included the lyrics "On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground, and people all over the world turned around." I thought of Denise when Spike Lee went to Birmingham to make the film "4 Little Girls" 30 years after the church bombing.
Sitting there in that church in March 2005, the full force of September 1963 finally hit me. A dam of tears unleashed as I wept for Denise, a sister of my soul.
Denise McNair never intended to become a symbol of the civil rights movement. But, like Anne Frank in the Holocaust, her image will always be a poignant reminder of man's inhumanity to man.
If all children can be taught, when they hear her story and see her sweet young face, to choose an alternative path to violence and destruction, her death will not have been in vain.
Rest in peace, Denise.
Wald's 2007 remembrance originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
About the Author:
Regina L. Burns, M.A., Project+, is an award-winning multimedia editor and journalist, specializing in Black history and African American stories at Harvest Reapers Communications. Her work has been published in Texas Highways magazine, WFAA-TV, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as well as The Commercial Appeal, the Tri-State Defender and The Flyer, among others.