Sunday, July 10, 2011

And the Choir Kept Singing of Freedom

It’s not that he doesn’t deserve the punishment. The question is how much he merits the mercy.
So writes Diane McWhorter in today's NY Times.
Now, I've written with some frequency here about how nobody much deserves mercy.  It's not something we can earn.  (That much, although I think no more, the Calvinists got right.) Mercy, I keep saying, is a gift.  It measures the donor, not the recipient.
Some people, on the other hand, deserve a break. You know, the if-it-weren't-for-bad-luck-I'd-have-no-luck-at-all types.  And some people, you just know they've suffered enough.  And earned some good well
And so we come to these children
If you're of a certain age - and maybe even if you're not - you know who they are.
It was 10:22 in the morning.  Sunday.  September 15, 1963.  Birmingham, Alabama.  The 16th Street Baptist Church.
And it was 19 sticks of dynamite.  Set by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Because it was a black church. 
A hate crime.
The girls were there, in the church.  It was "youth day."  They were killed.
The four girls were killed.  Killed because they happened to be there.  And because that's what white folks did to black folks back then.  At least some of the time.
Carol Robertson
Addie Mae Collins
Cynthia Wesley
Denise McNair 
I'm not religious.  I don't buy into that stuff about them being in a better place.
But sometimes from the tragic, from the horrific, rising phoenix-like, comes something that can pass for redemption.
These are the parents of Denise McNair.  Holding a picture of their murdered daughter. 
I don't have words for their grief.  Really, there are none.
McWhorter tells us about the father, Chris.
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.
He's now 85, and that's not a bad legacy.  "[a]n agent of community healing."
But of course there's more.
Here's Chris McNair now.
Sadly, that's Chris McNair the convicted felon.
He's beginning a 5-year sentence in the federal pen, convicted of public corruption during his later years as a Jefferson County Commissioner.  McWhorter summarizes.
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. 
Chris McNair says there was no corruption.  No quid pro quos.  Friends help friends.  Politicians help constituents.  Particularly those they like.
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. 
Sure.  Maybe.  I suppose.  And maybe it's what McNair's daughter Lisa told McWhorter.
The contractors did what they did not just “out of love for Daddy,” she proposes, but also “out of apology, or guilt.”
I don't pretend any special ability to see into the human heart.  But that one strikes me as particularly unlikely.  Not that my guesses matter.  Whether he took the money in exchange for political favors or not.  Whether he did it, if he did, from greed or entitlement.  Whether there's fire amid the smoke?  I don't know.  And at this point it probably doesn't matter.
Chris McNair is doing 5 years.  He's 85 now.  I haven't checked the actuarial tables, but I don't figure he'll have much time left at the end of those years.  If he makes it that long.
But see, and here's where we come back to where I began, there's this question of mercy.
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). 
Jones served as Obama's guide in 2004 when the then-candidate for Senate toured the church.  Now he's trying to be McNair's guide through the mess of presidential pardon politics.
Let's be clear.  Obama can pardon McNair.  He can commute his sentence.  He can wait it out and do nothing.  He can formally blow him off.  We've seen Obama's approach to pardons so far.
The only folks who get them seem to be plucked at random from the ranks of those who don't need them.  
That doesn't bode well for Chris McNair who may seem a bit too Barakian for Barak in his willingness, eagerness even, to cross racial lines, to work with those who hate him.
I'm rarely clear about just what we accomplish by putting elderly men and women in prison.  And I don't pretend fully to understand the political dynamics of pardons and commutations and clemency.
Here's what I know.
Chris McNair suffered a loss terrible in its horror as a result of an act of pure enormity.  And he's been an agent of healing.
Mercy, as I said, isn't about what he deserves.  It's not about him, it's about us.
More precisely, in this case, it's about Barak Obama.
Who has to date shown himself to lack any instinct toward mercy.
Chris McNair provides him with a chance.
There is still, as Obama acknowledges from time to time, a serious racial divide in this country.
Those who would be agents of healing might attend.
I'm not optimistic.


  1. I'll certainly second your proposal, but I have even less influence with the Obama administration than you do. Even with my real name.

    Why they pick him and not 50,000 other arguable bribe takers in public office is beyond me. The prosecutorial discretion of the feds is often mystifying.

  2. You and I can be the start of groundswell of support.

  3. Count me in on the groundswell.