By DIANE McWHORTER
CHRIS McNAIR, symbol of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., reported to federal prison last month, bereft of the media respect that has been his companion for most of his 85 years. In 1963, Mr. McNair's 11-year-old daughter, Denise, died along with three other black Sunday school girls in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Mr. McNair, then a school-teacher turned photographer, transcended his anguish to become an agent of community healing, a popular politician whom white people appreciated for his policy of not bringing up his child's martyrdom.
Now he is beginning a five-year sentence for public corruption crimes committed toward the end of his tenure as a county commissioner. There is little wonder at the scant news coverage. Mr. McNair's fall from grace violates the redemption narrative on which our national mythology has thrived since Lincoln consecrated the Civil War dead at Gettysburg: the belief that our tragic racial past can be converted into "a new birth of freedom."
Our faith in a more perfect union, once affirmed so exquisitely by Mr. McNair's career, is the same narrative that Barack Obama invokes when he says that only in this country would an odyssey like his - from mixed-race child of a single mother to president of the United States - even be possible. But often, it seems, success imposes on such trailblazers a countervailing duty to minimize the social challenges that make their stories so extraordinary, and to sidestep "the great task remaining before us," as Lincoln summed up the racial forecast for the nation he had just preserved.
The pressures of destiny can sometimes cause presumptive saviors to balk or to stumble. Now, with executive clemency the only thing that can spare the aged Mr. McNair what might easily be a life sentence, Mr. Obama, the tentative one, and Mr. McNair, the fallen, meet at a tricky bend in the universe's moral arc. Will Mr. Obama have the nerve to act - especially when the coordinates of justice are so inconveniently complex?
The facts do not seem particularly subtle. Mr. McNair was convicted in 2006 (five years after leaving office) on 11 federal counts of bribery and conspiracy. Local firms had provided ample goods and services to overhaul his Birmingham photography studio and received equally ample contracts over the course of a $3 billion upgrade of the county sewer system while he was commissioner. In addition to the five-year sentence, Mr. McNair was ordered to make restitution of $851,927 for the bribes, including $140,000 in cash that he pleaded guilty to soliciting.
The defense Mr. McNair mounted almost sounds too implausible to be totally untrue, at least in his own mind. Throughout the trial and subsequent appeals, he contended that there was no connection, no quid pro quo, between the donations and the contracts - that, in fact, the contractors (also convicted) were acting out of friendship rather than corrupt intent, as longstanding business associates who had become true intimates. However dubious the ethics of those relationships, they were not without some socially redeeming benefit: By breaking bread at home, after sundown, the McNairs and these contractors - all white - most certainly stormed one of the most resistant citadels of segregation: the dining-room table.
Lisa McNair, born one year after her sister Denise died, suggests a further moral factor in the transaction: The contractors did what they did not just "out of love for Daddy," she proposes, but also "out of apology, or guilt." The local premiere of "Four Little Girls," Spike Lee's 1997 documentary on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, "opened the eyes of so many people," Ms. McNair told me, since it was "the first time they understood the emotional toll" of Denise's death on her parents. When one of the contractor friends (now in prison) encountered her soon afterward, Ms. McNair said, "he burst into tears." It was within two years of the film's release that the illegal work began on the Chris McNair Studio and Art Gallery, which included exhibition space for Mr. McNair's photographs of the civil rights movement as well as a memorial room for Denise. (The building is now for sale.)
It isn't difficult to imagine a related, unconscious motive for Mr. McNair's guiltless if not shameless acceptance of the contractors' favors: The city owed him a debt. Of course amends could never be made for his loss. Yet for decades - before Spike Lee - the community's solicitude toward the victims' families was virtually nil. True, Robert Chambliss, the most notorious of Denise's murderers - known as "Dynamite Bob," he had once enjoyed the protection of city hall, as the Klansman implicated in Birmingham's signature rash of bombings in the 1940s and 1950s - was finally tried and convicted in 1977. But his crime against the city's young was mostly seen as an unfortunate aberration rather than the predictable outcome of nearly a century of officially and socially sanctioned sin.
Nor did the survivors receive due recognition for the blood sacrifice that hastened the end of apartheid in America: The church bombing, coming four months after the city of Birmingham turned fire hoses and police dogs on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s child demonstrators in the spring of 1963, helped assure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished legal segregation.
Perhaps the civic silence would not have been so hurtful had there been a compensatory repudiation of the sworn enemies of civil rights. The Chris McNair Health Center, a county clinic, was renamed in the wake of his disgrace. But if you drive from Birmingham to Selma - another landmark Alabama town, starting point of the march that brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - you will still take the Walter C. Givhan Highway, honoring a standard-bearer of the White Citizens' Council, the 1950s' polite alternative to the Ku Klux Klan. He has apparently been rehabilitated as "the father of the soybean movement in Alabama."
Arguably Chris McNair's 28-year career in public service was some consolation for his pain, even if it did require that he work in the state legislature alongside Bob Gafford, a confidant of his daughter's killer, Mr. Chambliss. A couple of years before Mr. McNair became, in 1973, one of the first black legislators elected since Reconstruction, the local white leadership asked him to join the delegation representing Birmingham in Look magazine's "All American Cities" competition. The favorable result was seen as the symbolic readmission of "Bombingham" to the union after the 16th Street atrocity. "I knew that the city fathers were using me," Mr. McNair told me in 2006, "and they knew I knew they were using me." But he had been willing to cooperate "because the overall picture was bigger than me - and bigger than them."
That is the calculus that Mr. McNair's lawyer, Doug Jones, is hoping the Obama administration will use to assess the clemency petition he has filed (and which "remains under consideration," according to a Justice Department spokeswoman). Mr. Jones's last glimpse of his client was in a parking lot in Marion, Ill., where a uniformed guard led Mr. McNair into the federal penitentiary, helpfully carrying his pills, orthopedic shoes and sleep apnea machine. But in the overall picture, Chris McNair may well turn out to be the original "post-racial" politician, who had a bit more to overcome than his heirs.
On the matter of clemency our first black president is not likely to be an easy touch. Mr. Obama has declined, for example, to issue a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the black boxing champion subjected to government prosecution a century ago because of his affairs with white women - notwithstanding that the Congressional resolution urging the pardon (passed in 2009 and re-introduced this past May) was sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York.
The political paradigm of Nixon in China licensed those white conservatives to advocate for a controversial black man. Mr. Obama's own strategically counterintuitive approach might be labeled "Dodge the Right Thing": steer clear of any racial engagement, no matter how excellent the Republican cover (though the inflated urgency of the renewed campaign hints of a gaffe trap for the president). It goes without saying that Mr. Obama has his hands full with battles he didn't have the luxury to pick.
But at some point a leader must put himself in the "mess"- as conflict-shy African-Americans used to call the civil rights movement - and, in Robert Penn Warren's words, "identify with fate." His restraint has hardly inoculated him against the color of his skin anyway.
In 2004, as a senatorial candidate from Illinois, Mr. Obama paid a visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church. His guide that day was Mr. Jones, who, a few years before becoming Mr. McNair's lawyer, had been the local United States attorney (appointed by Bill Clinton) and led the successful prosecution of the last two known living suspects in the bombing. The state's indelible exhibit in the trials had been Chris McNair's photograph of young Denise, clutching her pale, freckled Chatty Cathy doll.
Such are the intangibles that situate Mr. McNair's judgment day somewhere outside the realm of temporal justice, beyond even the verdict of opinion polls. It's not that he doesn't deserve the punishment. The question is how much he merits the mercy - if not a bit of gratitude, for giving us that early, elusive taste of reconciliation before post-racial was cool.
The author of "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution."