On Sept. 15 1963, the 16th street Baptist Church bombing took the life of 11-year-old Denise McNair along with three other young girls and left nearly 15 injured. Nearly a year later, Denise’s sister, Lisa was born.
Last night, the Auburn public library hosted Lisa McNair to discuss the publication of her book “Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew,” which McNair described as a memoir composed of a collection of 40 letters.
During her presentation, McNair shared photos of her family and spoke about growing up without the chance to meet her sister but knowing the legacy she had left behind. She stated that she has known she wanted to write a memoir since she was 14.
“I knew early on that my life was different than most Black people that I knew,” McNair said. “I had some struggles with that, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to because there were so few of us that had that experience. So, at 14 I thought, ‘boy I’m going to have to write a book about this.’”
In 2006, after graduating from the University of Alabama and working in Birmingham for years, McNair decided to visit the idea of finally writing the book she had been thinking about for all those years.
It wasn’t until later that McNair decided that her book would be in the form of letters to her sister, after speaking to a friend who was a journalist. McNair initially hoped her friend would help with the writing process but instead her friend suggested that she write to the sister she never met.
“She told me, you could write to her, and talk to her and say anything you want to say, and it began to flow much more easily after that,” McNair said.
Writing the letters was a cathartic process for McNair, she said it felt like she was “purging” the feelings of isolation she had felt from her peers from a young age.
“It was my reality,” McNair said. “I wanted to write about that in the book whether it offended people or not because there's a Black kid that's in a school with only a handful of Black people. She's lost and she goes home and there's nobody to talk to that about. And she doesn't know if she's doing the right thing, or she's doing wrong thing. So, I really wrote the book for her.”
The book was released to the public on Sept. 13 this year and McNair expressed that the reception from her friends, family and strangers has been overwhelming to hear.
After receiving an early edition of the book, McNair said that her best friend from first grade called her two days later to tell her that she had spent the past few nights reading the book and said, “I just finished it. Oh my god It was wonderful and cool because I remember these things and I lived them with you.”
McNair also sent a copy of the book to her uncle.
“He’s the only relative I gave one to,” McNair said. “He is one of 12 children and he called me and left me the most amazing message and said, ‘you did such a wonderful job, it is so well written’ and when you have a big family like that who live so far away, to get that accolade from him was very helpful.”
The book chronicles significant moments in McNair’s life as well as her families, with letters titled “Bama,” “Our Baby Sister,” “The Family Business”, etc. These letters talk about her experiences in college, her dad’s election to Alabama legislature and growing up.
At the end of her panel, McNair gave a piece of advice to young people who want to pursue a career in civil rights.
"Learn from the people who did it for you," McNair said. "That's first. I think people are marching and angry and upset but I don't think anybody's really studying what King did and the six principles of non violence how they were really all won in in a non violent way and an intelligent way."
When McNair is now travelling the country and speaking at panels, she works in Birmingham as a professional photographer. She hopes to continue to write more books and wants her next project to be a collection of photographs that her dad took during the civil rights movement in Alabama.
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My Ly, senior in journalism, is the content editor for the Auburn Plainsman.