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The Nation

Memorial to Slain Daughter May Be His Downfall

April 03, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Before he retired, Chris McNair built a small room for his 11-year-old daughter, Denise. Next to her roller skates, sewing kit and jump rope are the black patent leather shoes she wore the morning in 1963 that she and three other girls were killed when their church was bombed by Klansmen.

The room is a stirring memorial to his daughter -- one he planned for decades, and one that federal prosecutors say he built with bribes.

Today, McNair, 80, who worked as a Jefferson County commissioner for 15 years, will appear in federal court to defend himself against charges that he funded the memorial room and a larger expansion of his art gallery with bribes from contractors who worked on the county's $3-billion sewer rehabilitation.

In total, prosecutors say, he accepted nearly $1 million in bribes. McNair maintains his innocence.

"I think it's a grave injustice," he said in an interview at his lawyer's office in Birmingham last week. "I'm an 80-year-old man. I think I've been a good man for this city, this county, this state and this nation. And that's that."

Birmingham has been curiously quiet about the prospect of the father of one of city's "four angels" spending his final years in jail.

The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church was a turning point for race relations in Birmingham and the South. After Maxine McNair wept in the street, holding her dead daughter's shoe, Eugene Patterson, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal, wrote: "We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it."

McNair played a pivotal role in leading the city through its unsettled post-segregation years. A photographer, he picked himself up after his daughter's death to become a resolute and calm ambassador not only for his community but for the city.

In 1970, seven years after his daughter's slaying, he helped officials petition for the city -- once dubbed "Bombingham" because of the many attacks on African American homes and churches -- to win "All-American City" status from the National Civic League. Two years later, he was among the first African Americans to serve in the Alabama House of Representatives, representing a predominantly white district in a notoriously segregated city.

Residents of this city -- which has a black mayor and a predominantly black council but largely segregated neighborhoods -- have responded hesitantly to the charges against McNair. The local newspaper and television coverage has been so muted that some residents do not know about the charges.

"Nothing is being said too much in the community," said the Rev. Abraham Woods, president emeritus of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said he expected some supporters to attend the trial. "Everybody is waiting."

In many ways, the mood befits a man who was always quiet and low-key. Yet it also reflects modern-day cynicism.

McNair's trial is part of a larger corruption case involving 18 county officials, contractors and construction companies and the latest in a string of corruption charges brought against local leaders.

In a park next to Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute, Faith Taylor, 50, a black nursing student at Lawson State Community College, gazed into the distance as she contemplated the charges against McNair. She went to Center Street Elementary School, where Denise McNair was a student.

"I think he's a good man," she said of Chris NcNair. "Sometimes you wonder how good can go bad. But you can't study it too hard because sooner or later you'll have to look in the mirror."

A couple of blocks away in Birmingham's gleaming downtown business district -- the city is now a banking, medical research and publishing center -- Gerald Colvin, 59, a white lawyer, said he hoped McNair was not guilty.

"I thought he had more character than that," he said. "I always felt good things about him. He was a progressive influence in race relations here, a voice of reason when there weren't too many."

Prosecutors claim that McNair "enrich[ed] himself by corruptly soliciting" nearly $250,000 in bribes from sewer contractors to pay for his gallery's concrete foundation, carpet, tiles, stairs, carpentry work, automatic security gate and landscaping.

They also accuse McNair, who supervised the department in charge of sewer contracts until he retired in 2001, of accepting $320,000 for a second home in Arkansas, $410,000 in cash and $8,135 for a cruise to Alaska.

Family friends say the charges have shattered any peace of mind that McNair might have found after the final Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, was convicted in 2002.

"To me, it's like another bomb has gone off in his life," said Barbara Cross, the daughter of the Rev. John Cross, who was pastor of 16th Street Baptist at the time of the bombing. "All of a sudden, in the twilight of his life, everything has exploded."

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