A rare look at Chris McNair's civil rights-era photography
Beth Shelburne, Fox 6 (Birmingham, AL) News Anchor
Monday, September 2nd, 2013, 5:03pm
Chris McNair holds his daughter Denise. She was one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC)- Before former Jefferson County commissioner Chris McNair became an example of public corruption, he worked as a successful photographer for close to fifty years. Many of his photographs document the civil rights movement and everyday life in Birmingham.
His life has had incredible highs and lows- from a civil rights hero to corrupt politician who pleaded guilty to bribery to now an 87-year-old man whose early release from prison happened just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the church bombing that killed his daughter Denise and changed the civil rights movement.
In between those dramatic moments, McNair spent his time taking pictures from the unique perspective as one of the few professional, black photographers in Birmingham.
I recently sat down with one of McNair's surviving daughters, Lisa, who shared some his rarely seen pictures, many of them never seen publicly before.
McNair even managed to take a few pictures outside 16th Street Baptist Church on that awful day. September 16, 1963, a bomb exploded at the church, killing Denise McNair and three other girls getting ready for church services.
Daughter Lisa McNair explains how she thinks her father was able to photograph the scene given how close the tragedy hit his family.
"He just always had his camera with him no matter where he was," McNair says. "He always had his camera with him and I imagine if it hadn't been so close he might have taken more pictures, but I think it was too much and it was too close and that's all that he got," she says of the handful of snapshots that depict the destruction outside the church.
Lisa McNair was born one year after Denise was killed. She took us to the storage facility where they've kept her father's vast photography collection since his studio closed. Opening up an 8x10 sized envelope, she discovers some family pictures of Denise, including a rare picture of Denise and Chris McNair together, his arms wrapped around her in a tender embrace.
"Oh this is one of my favorites because daddy is always behind the camera, you don't see ones with him and her," says McNair.
Lisa says she's known about her sister's death and how it happened as long as she can remember.
"I remember as a little kid being very confused about the whole thing," she explains. "Denise being my sister killed by racist white people is like the first memory that I have. That kind of doesn't start it off very good and that kind of puts you in a crazy place. You're wondering, am I going to get killed? Is somebody going to try to kill me?"
She continues, "So you go through all that. I couldn't wait until I turned 11 to 12, then I knew I made it past where she made it. I just couldn't wait to be 12."
Despite the horror the McNair family experienced, Lisa says her mother and father were never bitter and relied on their deep faith in God to get through the ordeal.
"He always had black and white clients," she explains about her father's business. "He was very loved in the white community as well as the black community for his photographic work."
"It was really cool," she continues, "We've always had a very integrated life, from the very beginning."
McNair's photography collection features a who's who in civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy are all featured prominently. McNair also photographed many celebrities, including Jackie Robinson and was A.G. Gaston's official portrait photographer.
He photographed big events in Birmingham, like an SCLC convention in the 1960's. In one photo, a young Rosa Parks is among the people seated on the stage.
It was a unique time when pictures carried a strong message and Chris McNair had unparalleled access.
"I think that's because he was an African American man, he was well known and liked in the community and so, he was given access," says Lisa McNair.
His shots of George Wallace's stand in the school house door give us a unique perspective of the event. Wallace is seen watching from behind a fence after the Alabama National Guard told him to step aside.
He also photographed students Vivian Malone and James Hood, the first black students at the University, as they addressed the crowd of reporters after they were able to register for classes. Malone smiles triumphantly at the crowd while Hood appears more stoic.
McNair's photography work also took him to dangerous places. He shot pictures for Ebony and Jet Magazines, many of the marches and demonstrations in downtown Birmingham. Several of the pictures feature the infamous Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor.
There are also many photographs of residential bombings, which occurred dozens of times in the 1960's. One home that was bombed belonged to A.D. King, the younger brother of Martin Luther King Junior.
Lisa McNair says her father was aggressive and unafraid.
"Daddy had a way, if he wanted to get somewhere and be somewhere, he just did," she says with a smile.
These days the McNair family is trying to figure out the best way to preserve Chris McNair's collection. Most of it exists as negatives that are filed in a vast card catalog. An art history professor from UC Irvine has been helping Lisa McNair in the beginning stages of organization.
It is unclear what all is contained in the collection, but Lisa McNair believes it will show the history of Birmingham. Her father not only photographed civil rights events, but personal events for clients- weddings, parties, games, picnics, the list goes on and on.
Lisa hopes to be able to properly catalog and archive the collection and one day produce a coffee table book of his photographs. It would be a welcome positive development for a family that has seen its share of tragedy.
Lisa McNair still remembers the long journey during her own childhood, trying to make sense of her sister's death. She recalls a conversation she once had with her mother.
"I said, 'Mama, are we supposed to hate white people?'" she remembers asking. "And I remember her saying no. She said we're supposed to take people one at a time as they come and we're supposed to love everybody like Jesus loved us."
Copyright 2013 WBRC. All rights reserved.
McNair took photos of the 16th Street church bombing the day it happened, as well as prominent civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. Source: WBRC video of Chris McNair's photography
Lisa McNair said her father always had his camera with him, and was unafraid to photograph the front lines of marches, recent bombings, and demonstrations. Source: WBRC video
McNair took this photograph of a residential bombing, one of dozens that happened in the 60's. WBRC video of Chris McNair's photography
An undated photo of a young Chris McNair. Source: WBRC video of Chris McNair's photography