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Americans who excuse violence need to see the world through Maxine McNair’s eyes — and soul

So many have forgotten that real violence has real consequences

President Barack Obama talks in 2013 with Maxine McNair, whose daughter Denise was killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. McNair died on Jan. 2 at the age of 93.
President Barack Obama talks in 2013 with Maxine McNair, whose daughter Denise was killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. McNair died on Jan. 2 at the age of 93. (Pete Souza/The White House/Nationals Archives and Records Administration)

It looked like an ordinary room when I visited it years ago, a place you’d pause for a chat in the middle of a work day or to enjoy that lunch packed from home. But it was so much more, a room where memories and emotions overwhelm in the space of a few seconds.

When a business trip took me to Birmingham, Ala., I knew I had to visit, to witness at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where cowards placed a bomb that injured many and murdered four little girls getting ready for a church program on Sept. 15, 1963.

While the church itself is a beautiful sanctuary, the basement space is no less sacred.

That is what violence looks like, violence spurred by hate, violence that ended the lives of Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14, and Carol Denise McNair, just 11 years old. It wasn’t just Ku Klux Klan members whose fingerprints stained that evil and bloody act. Among the guilty were the “good” white citizens of Alabama, the leaders and politicians, who feared any change in the social, economic and political order that solidified their status, their place at the top. Whether silent or vocal, they supported the folks who did the dirty work.

Maxine McNair, the last living parent of any of the girls killed in the 1963 church bombing, died on Jan. 2 at the age of 93. Any mother, any person, could and should feel a piece of that pain in their bones; they should try to imagine how it might have felt to live nearly 60 years after burying a child, all those years to remember what was and to think of what might have been.

Short-term memories

Instead, a lot of Americans have apparently forgotten that important historical event from not that long ago. It’s not that surprising if you paid any attention to how divided Americans were in their commemoration of an insurrection, a violent attempt to overturn the results of an election judged fair by officials of every political party.

And that was just one year ago, on Jan. 6, 2021.

A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that about 1 in 3 Americans believed violence against the government could at times be justified. Though that third included all Americans, who listed a range of said justifications, from vaccine requirements to “protection,” there was a distinct partisan divide — with 40 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats indicating approval.

The Justice Department has noticed. Just this week, its National Security Division said it is forming a new domestic terrorism unit.

In January 2021, just as in September 1963, those who would never admit to thinking about pummeling police officers, erecting gallows on U.S. Capitol grounds or planting pipe bombs outside Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee headquarters — looked the other way after uttering words and initiating actions that bolstered the white-hot rage.

What’s worse, a year after the carnage, they choose to downplay or, in some cases, support the idea of real violence that leaves real consequences in its wake.

The list of offenders is long, from Donald Trump, who insists the real injustice was his Nov. 3, 2020, loss, to those Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose about-face judgments about Jan. 6 cause whiplash.

Who, according to his former press secretary Stephanie Grisham, was “gleefully watching” the chaos and crimes of his followers on Jan. 6? That would be the then-leader of the free world. Now, denying the violence that threatened their own lives has become a litmus test for political survival in the Republican Party.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson believes those lies will carry him to a third term. North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn blithely muses about “bloodshed” and urges mothers, “If you are raising a young man, please raise them to be a monster.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is seriously discussing secession as an option while humiliatingly walking back his accurate description of Jan. 6 on Fox News. It’s no wonder their colleagues across the aisle may literally be watching their backs.

In all forms

During the holidays, there were as many weapons as Nativity scenes in seasonal tableaux.

A chorus of elected officials now see their jobs as instigators rather than legislators, following a former president and a base of voters who reward them.

When angry Americans talk about a second Civil War, you want to ask if they really are nostalgic for a war that killed more than 600,000, a war for which the main cause was preserving the right to enslave men, women and children?

There is also violence of a sort — the bloodless kind — in the laws in states across the country that would construct restrictions to the ballot and punish nonpartisan elections officials who believe in one person, one vote. These wars, of course, have the potential for violent acts if self-styled poll watchers try to intervene with citizens doing their duty or partisan legislatures step in to change the results.

The heirs to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy want those wishing to honor him as his holiday approaches to focus on the fight to protect the vote for all. “No celebration without legislation,” his son Martin Luther King III, said on a recent call with other civil rights leaders.

Dr. King delivered a eulogy for three of the four children murdered that terrible day in 1963, words that have been no less relevant in every year that followed: “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

When the other side of any divide is seen as not quite human, anything is justified.

Maxine McNair set the standard. “Mrs. McNair was an amazing wife and mother and as a teacher of 33 years in the Birmingham public school system imparted knowledge in the lives of hundreds,” a statement from the family read. She spent her life in the city that broke her heart, giving back.

In the new year, we’ll see which example Americans — so many of them spoiling for a fight — follow.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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