To Denise McNair, Who Suffered So That I Can Vote


September 15, 1963 – A bomb blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four African-American girls during church services: Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14. Image from photo.

Dear Denise,

If you were alive today, I would invite you to my home for afternoon tea. I would serve you fancy sandwiches and fresh-baked cookies. Dvořák’s New World Symphony would be our background music. I would tell you it’s my favorite classical piece and you would say, “Oh, that’s real nice, but can we listen to some Mahalia instead?”

We’d go on: “Denise is my middle name.” And you would say, “Now isn’t that something? Darla Denise. I’ll bet your daddy called you Dee Dee.”

“Yes, he did.” We would drink and eat and laugh.

Then I would ask how long it took you to heal after the bombing. You would tell me about your family, friends, church brothers and sisters, and strangers helping you and your three friends through painful times of recovery.

“All is well, now,” you’d say. “I’m about to retire. I’ll be 65 years old in a few months. Time to settle down.”

Eventually, we would get to talking about politics and the state of our country. I would tell you that I usually vote Republican. You would say “As long as you’re voting your conscience.” I would tell you I’ve been called an “Uncle Tom” because of it. You would say “Forgive them.”

At the end of our time together, I would thank you for being one of the many people God used to ensure a decent life for me. You would wave your hand, dismissing your courageous life as if it were as simple as doing the right thing.

If you were alive.

But you are dead.

You were 11 years old when the bomb blast took your life.

You knew that evil was present, danger was a step forward, death was a church building during those awful Alabama days of 1963.

But evil didn’t stop you. You put on your Sunday dress and showed up to that youth rally. Soon after you arrived, you were in heaven with God.

Evil had been working to stop you wholly since your first breath: No eating here. No drinking here. No shopping here. No swimming here. Don’t learn to read. Don’t learn to write. Don’t get a good job. Don’t go to college.

And the one that dug so deep and so wide: Don’t even think about voting.

And because of all this incredible knowledge I have of you, Denise, and the myriad of other brave children, women, and men who shared your grief — I am struggling.

You lost your life because people were trying so hard to give me one, but I have to tell you this: I do not want to vote in this presidential election.

Yes, I know. That sounds selfish and ungrateful.

Every election year, since I was eligible to vote, I thought of you and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and fire-hydrant-drenched children and solitary students with soldiers, and all the others who suffered and won a prize for me. I would walk proudly to the polls and cast my vote. When I switched political parties to align with my changed moral convictions, I knew I would have to endure the mockery that comes with being a black conservative voter. But on to the polls I went.

Skip voting? Never. Too many people paid for my privilege with humiliation and their flesh. Of course I would vote.

But today, as I consider the probable candidates for the president of the United States — as I watch their behavior and learn of their plans — all I can think about is how you deserve better than this, Denise.

I imagine that your family buried you with high hopes — that the vote for which they suffered would choose quality people who respect themselves, their offices, their nation, and the people they pledge to serve.

Your neighbors cut the ropes from lynching victims and vowed to continue the fight so that their children and grandchildren could vote for people who disagree civilly and intelligently and decently.

Our ancestors endured whips and spit and bullets so that I could mark a ballot with thoughtfulness and gratitude and “This one will do the best job.”

So, I don’t want to cast my vote, Denise. In my mind, none of the candidates live up to the standard for which you and so many others suffered.

My frustration is not new. Many times in the past I have been unhappy with the choices I had for American leadership, both Democrat and Republican, in all levels of our government. Never before, though, have I also felt shame, as I do now.

On Election Day, I will walk into the polling place to honor you and the others, as usual. I will vote on propositions and representatives and judges and where my tax dollars should go. But I will not lift my pen to the bubble next to a presidential candidate’s name.

If you were alive, Denise, how I hope you would understand.

Maybe I will change my mind before Election Day. I don’t know. I keep thinking about how you suffered, Denise. [UPDATE 11/6/16: I am not changing my mind.]

But what I do know is this: Politics will fade away, but my choices are eternal.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)


Darla McDavid

I'm Darla, a writer of stories about family, friends, goodness, and God. I love cats, coffee, gardening, and tall stacks of books. Click here to subscribe to my blog. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. In my other life, I'm an administrative professional and a Sunday School teacher for preschoolers.

13 Comments Write a comment

  1. Darla, my prayer is that we ALL come to the conclusion that our right to vote is not an easy one but one with thought and deliberate conviction that our ancestors didn’t die in vain. Thank you for your reflections. How profound they are!!!


    • “…with thought and deliberate conviction.” Yes. That is what I want to do with my right to vote, Deborah, though the results may lead me to not vote at all. We shall see. Thank you so much for coming by!


  2. God bless you Darla. I understand. God guide your hand that day, and give you His wisdom. I so deeply admire you. You will do what is right–for life and for freedom.


    • Oh, Kristen, thank you for saying that you understand. That means a lot to me because, as I was writing this, I didn’t know if what I had to say would make sense. It took me a long time to click “Publish” for this one! One thing is for sure: It’s going to be a very interesting election to watch. God’s guidance for you as well, my friend.


  3. A friend pointed out one day that God uses imperfect people to advance His plans. I think of King David and his great personal failings–yet it is through him and his nation that we have Jesus Christ. God uses the most imperfect vessels to carry out His perfect will. Perhaps now is the time for revival–for our country and its people. There is great reason to hope!


    • I do love your spirit, Kristen, and I do hope things go well for our country. God will use whomever we choose. I just don’t want to be one of the choosers this time.


  4. Darla, I think you speak for many of us. I too am struggling to vote this year – I often think of the women like Susan B Anthony and the women in Afghanistan when they held up their “purple finger” to show they voted for the first time. I am ashamed to say I never thought of those young girls or what the African Americans have gone through for their right to vote and to be counted. I will now think of them and the importance of having our voices heard – along with those that fought the battle long before we were born. I have started to pray in earnest for God to make His choice known…sad to say I hear silence…is this God turning away from us leaving us to our own destruction – like our nation turned from Him? I think often how God had allowed the destruction of Israel when they turned away from Him – but in all of His goodness it is through those times He raised His people up again. So are we to be knocked down only to be raised up again? Whatever happens God is in control – He is preparing His people.


    • Patty, I like what you said in your new post: “Our life may be full of uncertainties, but God is certain and true.” Yes, indeed. I’ve begun to think that the new president will not be God’s choice but who He allows. Whatever God is doing with the U.S., it does seem that we, the people, need to take a good long look at where we’ve been and where we are headed. Unfortunately, I don’t see much evidence today that we are heading in a good direction.

      We all need reminders of our American history, so don’t feel ashamed for not having thought of these four girls. Did you know that Denise McNair was a friend and playmate of Condoleezza Rice? Dr. Rice heard the bomb blast that day. She was nine years old and says she will never forget that sound. Can you imagine how she felt when she became Secretary of State with full access to the White House? Yes, God is in control.


      • wow I did not know that. God is indeed in control. I do agree I also do not see much evidence that we are heading in a good direction. But also like you I am putting my trust in God that whatever happens God’s glory will be revealed.


  5. Thank you for this Darla… straight from the heart. My wife Francis and I, in Canada, are stunned at we we are hearing from the U.S. Amen, to this contemplation and tribute.


    • It is sad to think that the United States is a source of laughter, ridicule, and shock, Bruce. But, boy, have we earned it. I’m hoping that some miracle occurs and that Canada is soon proud again to be our neighbor. I love my country. I’m just ashamed of it right now.


  6. Darla, I always love your posts–your words are specific, heartfelt, profound and powerful–but this post is the Gold Standard. It is a tribute to so many people, ideals, voting, and the continuation hope even when hope is a weak cloud on a far horizon.
    There is a strength in this post that resonates with me.
    Thank you so much.


    • This was a hard one to write, Marylin. Thank you for regarding it so highly. California has its primary on Tuesday, so I was reviewing my ballot last night and saw the space for a write-in presidential candidate. The sad thing is … no name came to mind. I think that will be my homework between now and November — find someone who I can feel good about giving my vote. The person will not win, but I will feel right before God, which is most important to me.


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