For most of their adult lives, their father, Chris McNair, served as the family spokesman. But the longtime county commissioner, now 87, was convicted in 2006 for accepting bribes and then suffered a stroke. He was recently released after serving two years in a federal prison medical facility.
Along the way, Lisa and Kimberly learned to step up. What happened to their sister, to their family, is a piece of American history they must own.
Even though they never knew Denise, it is the sisters' story to tell.
'More of a diplomat than me'
She could have had her own room after their older brother went off to college, but Dianne Robertson chose to stay put in the bedroom she shared with her little sister, Carole. The two, five years apart, would listen to the radio at night. It was the late 1950s, and rock 'n' roll had taken hold.
"She knew all the songs," Dianne says. "'In the Still of the Night,' she really liked that one."
Outside, Carole often tagged along with Dianne and her friends. At the movie theater, the younger girl would look on in horror as Dianne and the others got into what she calls "all sorts of devilment" -- like tossing ice and popcorn from the upper balcony, where blacks were relegated, onto the white folks below. When their boyfriends would put their arms around the teenage girls, Carole would gasp and say, "I'm gonna tell Mama!"
"That's what we all remember. She was everyone's little sister," Dianne says. "We'd have to bribe her to not tell our parents."
The Robertsons, both educators, groomed their children to achieve. The family lived in a tight-knit community rich with black role models: business owners, lawyers, doctors, preachers and teachers. On Sundays, after dinner, the family would go on drives and admire the big, beautiful homes in white-only neighborhoods. Going to college and shooting for dreams was a given.
But where they came from was far from perfect. Their neighborhood in Birmingham was dubbed "Dynamite Hill" because there were so many explosions. Her parents shielded them from much of the ugliness. The kids were never allowed out at night alone. Rather than letting them take buses, where they'd feel the indignity of sitting in the back, their parents insisted on driving them.
No amount of sheltering, though, could keep them in the dark. Dianne remembers eavesdropping as her mom griped with friends. They resented spending their good money downtown and not being able to try on shoes or clothes at stores that reserved those conveniences for whites only. They knew the books their children got in their still-segregated schools paled in comparison to those given to white students.
By the summer of 1963, Dianne had two years of college in Atlanta behind her. She was pregnant with her first daughter when relatives up north helped secure her a job in a New York coat factory.
She moved in with an aunt and kept in touch with family back in Birmingham. The last letter Dianne got from her little sister came in June. Carole, who served on a church committee on racial problems, was excited because she had been chosen to represent the 16th Street Baptist Church at a youth conference. She never got to attend.
On September 15, Dianne was visiting with other family members when her aunt called.
"My aunt told me" about the bombing, "and I just kind of fainted." A bit later, she spoke to her mother. Her father, she says, was unable to talk. He'd identified Carole's body and split a door on the porch when he came home because he'd slammed it so hard. Ten years later, he would die of a massive heart attack. Dianne doesn't think he ever got over what happened to his baby girl. Her older brother remained angry and bitter until he died two years ago, she says.
"Their hearts were broken," she says. They thought they were "supposed to be the protectors, and there was nothing they could do about it."
Dianne flew to Birmingham the day after Carole died. Her parents were all business, planning the funeral for that Tuesday. Her mother picked out an outfit to match what Carole wore the day of the bombing -- a white dress and her first pair of little pump, specially selected for the youth service that was to follow Sunday school that tragic morning. By afternoon, civil rights leaders including King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy came to the Robertsons and asked them to reconsider their plans. They wanted them to take part in a joint funeral for all four girls scheduled one day later. Her parents chose to pass on that idea; Dianne supported their decision.
"The world was upset and hurt, but it was our family's grief," Dianne says. "There was a privacy about it that I really appreciated."
Dianne returned to New York and married the father of her child. When their daughter was born, they named her Carole. The couple, who would later have a second daughter, always assumed they'd settle in Birmingham. But after the bombing, Dianne said she never could. She enrolled in Queens College.
"It helped me a lot not to be in Birmingham or the South," she says. "In New York, I got a whole new perspective on white America. We were working together. I saw the goodness and the kindness."
For many years she told only a few close friends what happened to her sister. It was too horrific to talk about, and she didn't want anyone to think she "wore it as a badge of honor." Nothing about losing Carole felt honorable.
Now 69 and divorced, Dianne Robertson Braddock has lived for 40 years in Laurel, Maryland, where she keeps tokens of the past. The portraits of Carole that her mother kept on the family mantle are now with her. Like most of the other victims' siblings, she also has artistic renderings of the four girls.
She describes a sister who leaned toward serious, was an avid reader and clarinet player, and a proud Girl Scout who liked to show off her sash and all its badges. Carole was thoughtful and an intent listener. Even as the baby of the family, she'd mediate arguments between her older siblings.
"She would have been more of a diplomat than me," says Dianne. "She might have been a diplomat, a politician, a historian."
Diane has spent her career in education, working to improve the lives of others -- much like the women who came before her and her late sister. Their maternal grandmother, a teacher, founded the first black PTA in Birmingham. Their mother immersed herself in the voter registration movement. Dianne remembers handing out fliers as a high school student. Last June's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act makes her shudder.