Pastor’s daughter remembers 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Barbara Cross remembers children screaming, unaware of what had just happened.

She was 13 when, on September 15, 1963, she and other children were in Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church. Cross’s father, the Rev. John Cross, had moved her and his family to Birmingham the previous year when he took over the leadership of the congregation there.

That morning they were being taught a Sunday school lesson called “Forgiving Love.” That’s when the bomb exploded.

“I just remember hearing a loud bang and getting hit in the head by the fragments of the light fixture,” Cross said. “At first I didn’t know what it was.”

Four other girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – were killed in the explosion.

Unidentified mourners, who overflowed from the church, stand across the street during the funeral of 14-year-old Carol Robertson on September 17, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. The girl was one of four young African-Americans killed in a bomb blast the previous Sunday. (AP Photo)

Cross’ sister, Lynn, was among the dozen injured in the explosion. She remembers that Lynn, then 4, had blood pouring from her head down to her dress and that she was so shocked by the explosion that the only thing she could say to first responders was his age by holding up four fingers.

Scraping the glass fragments from his head, Cross was given a difficult task amid the chaos that followed: writing down the names of each injured child.

“I’m just grateful there weren’t more deaths,” she said.

Cross’s father knew something was going to happen sooner or later. Before the explosion, there had been six other bomb threats against the church that year. Until the last moment, he knew what some people in Birmingham were capable of.

“It was just a matter of timing,” Rev. Cross told the Birmingham News the day after the attack. “We expected this from the beginning, we were waiting for it, knowing it would happen, wondering when.”

Cross said that for many years his father blamed himself for what happened. By 1968, the family had left Birmingham and gone to Montgomery, where he got a job as director of the Baptist Student Center at Alabama State University. Reverend Cross died in 2007 at the age of 82.

“I think he blamed himself for the attack because he allowed Dr. (Martin Luther) King to use the church,” she said. “However, he had no hatred towards anyone.”

Barbara Cross, left, with her father, the Rev. John Cross, in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Barbara Cross)

To this day, Cross tries not to remember the names of the men responsible for the bombing. However, like his father, Cross chose love over hate.

“I don’t hate the suicide bombers, but I hate what they did. There’s a difference,” she said. “There’s a difference between hating a person and hating what they did.”

I think maybe he was angry, but he never showed it. He has always been a forgiving person. He never got angry. He may have been angry at what happened, but he never showed hatred.

“Every time I pass by there, I get nervous,” Cross told the Associated Press in December 1963.

We did not underestimate the extremists, he said. “We knew from the beginning that there were people in this city capable of anything. Even that.”


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