Bombing survivor, teen preacher inspire NAACP members

4/4/2014, 5:49 a.m.
The Rev. Jared Sawyer Jr., 16, and Birmingham church bombing survivor Barbara Cross urged black people to support the NAACP’s fight against efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

Unity in the African-American community was among the themes raised by two speakers at the DeKalb NAACP’s annual membership breakfast on March 28.

Birmingham church bombing survivor Barbara Cross and 16-year-old preacher and author Jared Sawyer Jr. called on the community to unify and support the NAACP’s fight against efforts to weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The occasion was the civil rights organization’s largest fundraising event of the year held at the Greater Travelers Rest Church in Decatur. In the audience of 250 were candidates seeking elected offices in the May 20 primary elections and community and religious leaders.

Cross, who lives in Decatur, was inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, when it was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan at the height of the civil rights movement’s battle for voting rights for African-Americans. The four black girls killed in the attack were her friends.

Now a DeKalb Schools substitute teacher, Cross, a retired BellSouth Services employee, said her history is painful.

“My father [the late Rev. John H. Cross] was the pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church at the time of the bombing that killed four little girls,” she said. “And I’m a survivor.”

The crowd cheered as Cross paused and tapped the lectern for emphasis. More than 50 years later, the still vivid memory was etched on her face.

Twenty-seven children were in the basement assembly room for a Sunday school lesson titled “Love That Forgives” when 22 sticks of dynamite planted under a rear stairwell in the church’s basement exploded.

Segregationists were angry that the city of Birmingham had reached a settlement with civil rights demonstrators and had begun to desegregate public places. The 16th Street Church was targeted because it 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.

Cross said the explosion sounded as if the whole building “had been rocked off its foundation.”

She suffered a head injury from a falling light fixture. Her young friends Denise McNair, 11, and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were killed.

Twenty-two others also were injured.

Cross said she shares her story with children every chance she gets.

“We need to teach our babies our history,” she said. “Too much blood has been shed on the streets and I ain’t goin’ back to ‘Bombingham.’ ”

Birmingham was nicknamed Bombingham because more than 50 bombings occurred in the city in the early 1960s.

Cross called on the African-American community to support the NAACP’s fight against efforts to weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the law that prohibited jurisdictions from making changes that affect voting without approval of the U.S. Department of Justice or federal courts.

Cross said lessons learned during the civil rights struggle also can be applied to modern problems that hit close to home.

“There’s a seriousness with bullying in schools,” Cross said. “I tell them they gotta love each other, we gotta teach our kids agape love – the love that forgives,” she said. “This is our future!”