Rev. John Cross Jr.; Pastor at Bombed Church

"Hardly a day passes I don't think about it," the Rev. John H. Cross Jr. said of the 1963 bombing at his Birmingham, Ala., church, which killed four girls. (Photo: Renee Hannans -- Atlanta Journal-constitution Via AP)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Rev. John H. Cross Jr., who was pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, when four girls at his church were killed in a bombing that became a turning point in the civil rights movement, died Nov. 15 at DeKalb Medical at Hillandale, in Lithonia, Ga. He was 82 and had had a series of strokes in recent years.

Rev. Cross was named pastor of the venerable Birmingham church in 1962 after serving at a Baptist church in Richmond. Not previously identified as a civil rights activist, he appeared to be a good match for the conservative black church, which was known for its educated congregation.

But when he stepped off the train in Birmingham and tried to hail a taxicab, Rev. Cross encountered a level of racial animosity he hadn't seen anywhere else.

"[I] don't drive coloreds," a white taxi driver told him, according to a 1991 article in the Boston Globe.

"I'll tell you what," Rev. Cross said, leaning in the window. "I'm coming here to pastor a church. Before I leave here, you'll be hauling anybody who wants to be hauled."

With the encouragement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Cross made his church a rallying point for the civil rights movement in one of the most volatile cities in the South. Birmingham had a strong Ku Klux Klan presence and had been shaken for years by an insidious, random violence that led to its infamous nickname, Bombingham.

The city's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, was notorious for unleashing dogs and turning high-powered fire hoses on demonstrators. Many protesters were beaten in clashes with police.

On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, Rev. Cross was at the church, preparing to deliver a sermon called "A Rock That Will Not Roll" for a youth worship service. At 10:22 a.m., an explosion shattered the morning calm, crumbling a brick wall and destroying the face of Jesus in a stained-glass window.

At first, Rev. Cross thought the church's water heater had exploded, but he could smell the powder of explosives and hear anguished cries amid clouds of dust and smoke. As he and church members dug through rubble in the collapsed basement, he found the bodies of 11-year-old Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14.

"They were all stacked in a pile, like they clung together," Rev. Cross recalled in 2001. "Their bodies were so mutilated I couldn't recognize any one of them, as well as I knew these girls. It was like looking at strangers."

As word of the bombing spread, more than 2,000 people gathered at the church, and some began to throw stones and concrete at passing cars with white drivers. Rev. Cross stopped one woman from hurling a brick.

"I had to reach up and touch her hand," he said. "I said, 'No, you can't settle it like this.' "

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