Memory of church bombing still vivid
Jennifer Ffrench-Parker | 9/13/2013, 6:03 a.m.
Barbara Cross is down in Birmingham, Ala., this weekend, joining the throngs and the celebrities congregating there for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The hate crime on Sept. 15, 1963, killed four little black girls at the height of the civil rights movement’s battle for voting rights for African-Americans.
Denise McNair, 11, and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson and Addie Mae Collins were all friends of Cross, then 13 years old.
Her father, the late Rev. John H. Cross, was pastor of the church. After Sunday school that morning, Cross was with her friends moments before the bomb blew apart the church’s restroom where the girls were.
If her Sunday school teacher, Ella Demand, had not called her to run an errand, Cross would have been with them.
The blast shattered the calm of that sunny Sunday morning and changed all their lives forever.
Cross remembers the horrible noise the bomb made.
“The building was shaking,” she said, “and the lights went out.”
Later they found out that Ku Klux Klan members had planted 22 sticks of dynamite under the stairwell from the first-floor sanctuary to the church basement – right next to the gas meter and the girls restroom.
Cross said the KKK was angry about her father allowing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to hold meetings at the church; the integration of Alabama’s schools five days earlier; King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28; and the desegregation of downtown Birmingham’s lunch counters and department store fitting rooms that April.
The 16th Street Baptist Church, at 1530 Sixth Ave., was one of Birmingham’s largest black churches at the time, counting among its members the city’s black architects, doctors, lawyers, educators and business owners.
When her father dug through the rubble, Cross said he found the mutilated bodies of her friends.
The only survivor from the restroom that morning was Addie Mae’s 11-year-old sister, Sarah Collins, who was badly injured and lost her right eye.
Altogether, 23 other children were injured that day, including Cross, who was hit in the head by a falling light fixture. Her youngest sister, Lynne, who was 4 years old, sustained a cut on her forehead, and Alma, 11, suffered a cut on a leg. Her brother, Michael, who was 5, had nightmares for a long time.
Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 bombings occurred in Birmingham, earning the city the nickname “Bombingham.” Among the bombings were the home of King’s brother, A.D. William King, and the home and church of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
The girls’ deaths were the subject of Spike Lee’s 1997 film “Four Little Girls.”
The memory of that morning, 50 years ago, is still vivid for Cross. She still can’t speak of it without tears or her voice cracking. She began speaking about her friends in the late 1990s when her then-pastor, the late Rev. George McCalep at Greenforest Baptist Church, recognized her as a survivor of the bombing during a Black History sermon. After that, people began inviting her to talk of her experience.