Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

Rev. John Cross, 1925 – 2007

In 1962, 38 year old Rev. John Cross accepted the pastorate of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  The historic church was at that time a center of activity and organization of the civil rights movement.  It also was a symbol for those who would stop at nothing – including murder – to stop the movement, much the same way the World Trade Center was a symbol of America to Al-Qaeda.

Revjohncross On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, just a little over a year into Rev. Cross’ pastorate, he was at the church helping to prepare for Sunday School and Worship Service.  At 10:22 am, the unthinkable happened. A massive explosion rocked the church building. It was a bomb intended to deliver a message to the church and its pastor. 

Minutes after the bomb blast, John Cross was found frantically digging through the rubble.  “I’ve got to go in. I have to make sure the children are OK,” his daughter Barbara, who was 13 at the time, remembers him saying.

All the children were not OK.  Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair were all dead. Twenty-two others were injured.

The bombing was no isolated incident.  Between 1947 and 1965, there were over fifty racially motivated bombings in the city that was derisively called “Bombingham” across the country. But the blast at Sixteenth Street was different, both in terms of its severity and its cruelty.  Three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite in the church’s basement.  They timed it to go off when people would be there for Sunday worship. This wasn’t a message, it was cold blooded murder.

The fact that the victims of the blast were four little girls who were indisputably innocent shocked the city and the nation.  The Birmingham World published the following commentary three days after the murders:

Lethal dynamite has made Sunday, September 15, 1963, a Day of Sorrow and Shame in Birmingham, Alabama, the world’s chief city of unsolved racial bombings.

Four or more who were attending Sunday School at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the day of Sorrow and Shame were killed. Their bodies were stacked up on top of each other like bales of hay from the crumbling ruins left by the dynamiting. They were girls. They were children. They were members of the Negro group. They were victims of cruel madness, the vile bigotry and the deadly hate of unknown persons.

Is Birmingham a sick city? We cannot answer for sure. There are tensions because there is fear…there is a feeling of diminishing faith in City Hall to measure up to the responsibility of the kind of municipal leadership needed in his City of Sorrow and Shame. The killers of the innocents have challenged the conscience of decent persons everywhere.

16thstreet01 Faced with such inhumanity, such evil against the innocent, it would have been so easy to hate.  It would have been so easy to live the rest of your life seeking revenge and retribution. But Rev. John Cross didn’t take the easy way out.  The bombing left Cross with a passion for racial reconciliation.  That would be the singular focus of his life and ministry for the next four decades. 

“He realized after the bombing, there was work to be done,” Barbara Cross said. “That was his calling.”

The four little girls whose lives were senselessly taken from them that September Sunday in 1963 became martyrs for the cause of civil rights.  Largely because of the public shock and horror of their deaths, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.  Rev. Cross presided at the massive funeral of three of the four victims.  Martin Luther King gave the eulogy. Over eight thousand people attended.

Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair gave their lives for justice, freedom and equality. John Cross lived his life for it, tirelessly seeking to bring us all together.

Rev. John Cross passed away last week at 82 after several years of declining health. His funeral will be held today at Greenforest Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia.

He will be remembered at the service today as a towering, historic figure in the struggle for change in this country, a hero who dedicated his life to racial reconciliation and understanding.

As well he should be.

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