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The father of one of four little girls killed by KKK bombing in 1963 is finally freed from prison

Published in The Washington Post, Aug. 29, 2013

by Douglas A. Blackmon

One of the first inmates to benefit from the Obama administration’s new, less stringent guidelines on the early release of federal prisoners is the 87-year-old father of one of four African American girls killed in the infamous 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.

U.S. District Court Judge Lynwood Smith of Birmingham, Ala., signed an order Thursday releasing Christopher McNair, a former county commissioner in the state who has served just over half of a five-year-sentence for accepting $140,000 in bribes while in office official.

The order came in response to a request from Justice Department lawyers earlier in the day seeking McNair’s release on medical grounds. By nightfall, the inmate had been released from a federal prison hospital in Minnesota, and his lawyer was arranging to fly him back to Alabama.

The carefully choreographed series of legal maneuvers, came after a quiet, years-long campaign by some prominent African-Americans and civil rights leaders in support of clemency for McNair. On May 24, McNair’s wife made a personal plea to President Obama at an Oval Office signing ceremony for legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the four murdered girls, according to others present at the event. 

Attorney General Eric Holder, accompanied by his wife Sharon Malone – whose older sister integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 – also attended the White House ceremony. Holder was deputy attorney general when the federal investigation into the Birmingham church bombing was reopened during the Clinton administration.

A spokesman for the department said the recommendation to commute McNair’s sentence was made by the federal Bureau of Prisons and “based solely” on new federal rules aimed at making it easier for prisoners in declining health to seek early release. More than 30 inmates have applied for similar sentence reductions since some guidelines were first loosened in April, and McNair would be the seventh set free since June, according to the department.

The Justice Department said McNair hasn’t been treated differently than other inmates, and that the timing of his release during a week of commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was a coincidence. However, officials acknowledged Holder’s interest in McNair’s situation and said he received at least two updates on the review this summer. After prisons officials concluded that McNair should be released a few weeks ago, the attorney general indicated that he agreed with that decision, one official said. 

The White House said President Obama took no steps to influence the review after the conversation with McNair’s wife, Thelma “Maxine” Pippen McNair, and that Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, subsequently told her that McNair’s situation had to be evaluated through normal Department of Justice channels.

McNair’s release adds a coda to one of the most searing and paradoxical narratives of the civil rights era. The KKK dynamite attack, carried out just weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and helped galvanize national support for the civil rights movement.

McNair, a photographer who captured images of King, the integration standoff at the University of Alabama and other key moments at the height of Birmingham’s racial turmoil, emerged as an influential local civil rights figure, becoming one of the first black candidates elected to the Alabama legislature in modern times and eventually served as a county commissioner from the 1980s to 2001. During his time in office, the federal investigation into the 1963 bombing was reopened, leading to convictions and imprisonment of two Klansmen involved in the killings. 

McNair’s fall from grace came after a conviction in 2006 for accepting $140,000 in bribes related to contracts for a massive sewer construction project. After appealing the conviction, he entered a federal medical prison in Rochester, Minn., in 2011.

The years long efforts to win clemency for McNair, beginning even before he had reported to prison, caused some heartburn among critics who said a tragedy unrelated to his crimes shouldn’t qualify him for a dispensation from punishment.

Supporters said McNair’s contributions to civil rights and his personal loss in 1963 should count for something in considering his situation. 

“Rather than being a bitter old man and leaving Alabama, which he could have done, what he and his wife did was stay here and try to make this place a little better,” said former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who prosecuted the two Klansmen after the bombing case was reopened and later became McNair’s defense attorney.

“I would just appeal to people’s sense of compassion,” said Lisa McNair, one of two other daughters in the family. “He’s an elderly man. He made a mistake and he paid for it in more ways than people really know.”

She said her father is suffering from a variety of medical ailments that have worsened since his imprisonment.

McNair’s wife made her plea to Obama after the White House ceremony on May 24 ended. As the president embraced her to say goodbye, McNair, who is 85 years old and also in declining health, rose from her chair, and then in a whisper asked if he could do anything to help her husband, according to others in the room.

McNair attended the White House ceremony in May, and said in an interview this week that her mother, Thelma “Maxine” Pippen McNair, requested a moment with the president to ask Obama if he could do anything to help her husband.

“He was not totally familiar with the situation, but he was gracious enough to respect her and say that he would look into it,” said Lisa McNair, who was present. “It was sweet of him to do that.” 

The White House in 2011 denied a request for clemency from McNair, and it has taken no action on a second clemency request filed earlier this year. If U.S. District Court Judge Lynwood Smith approves the government’s motion today, the request for presidential clemency becomes moot and McNair could be released within hours, according to his lawyer and federal officials.

The release of McNair may also please critics who have accused the Obama administration of doing little to address the issue of mass incarceration, especially of African-Americans, despite campaigning on promises to deal with the issue.

During an August 12 speech to the American Bar Association, Holder said the Justice Department was relaxing standards for granting “compassionate release” to some sick and elderly federal prisoners who had served a substantial portion of their sentence and posed no threat of violence.

That move followed an initial round of changes to the compassionate release program made after a report in April by the Justice Department’s independent Inspector General criticizing the Bureau of Prisons for having unclear and inconsistent standards for evaluating prisoners’ eligibility for release. Those rule changes that opened the door for McNair’s possible release this week, Justice officials said.

During earlier efforts to get McNair out of prison, one of the most fierce opponents was Birmingham lawyer Donald Watkins, who wrote the government saying McNair’s corrupt acts injured thousands of people in Alabama and that he should get no special treatment regardless of past tragedy.

However, after the order to cut McNair’s sentence was entered on Thursday, even Watkins — moved by the image of an increasingly feeble old man behind bars—said perhaps it was time for him to be set free.

“If in fact he qualifies for compassionate release based on Department of Justice guidelines,” Watkins said. “Then I have no objection to the release of an 87 year old man from prison.”

 

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