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Remembering History: Birmingham church bombing surivor speaks
Barbara Cross calls on students at Peeks Chapel Elementary, where she spoke on Tuesday about her experience during the Civil Rights struggle. - photo by Photo by Robert Porter

On Tuesday, Barbara Cross reached across generations to teach some Peeks Chapel Elementary students what it means to survive and forgive.

In 1963, Cross survived the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. She was 13 years old and her father, Rev. John H. Cross Jr., who died 2007 in Decatur, was the pastor.

Four of Cross’ friends were killed that day just after Sunday school – Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Carole Robertson, 14. The tragedy, which also injured 23 others, spurred historic racial change, including signing of the Civil Rights Act a year later.

So Cross, now a writer, educator and motivational speaker, wanted to make sure the Peeks Chapel students understood the significance of that fateful day and why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is her hero. She believes the church was bombed because her father let King visit during a tumultuous time in the city of demonstrations and boycotts for racial equality.

Three ex-Ku Klux Klanmen were later convicted of the crime in separate trials. Investigators think 10-22 sticks of dynamite were used.

"Young people, we should always remember our history," Cross said. "No matter how painful, Ms. Cross will always talk about her story."

About 100 fifth-grades students gathered in the school’s media center to hear her speak. Some sat cross legged on the carpeted floor, while others took seats at small, wooden tables of four. Cross stood at the front of the room between two large whiteboards covered with photos and browning newspaper clips
detailing the incident and her life.

She told the kids it is hard to talk to elementary school students because the topic is so sensitive. She said she carries tissues when she speaks publicly since she sometimes cries because while her physical scars have healed, emotional ones are still there. She used to shake and have nightmares. Her three siblings still will not talk about the bombing.

"All I remember is there was the most horrific noise I’d ever heard in my life, and hope I never hear it again," Cross recalled. "It seemed like the building was knocked off its foundation.

"Everyone was stampeding because they were trying to get out."

Today, what she endured would be considered a terroristic act, Cross said. At the time there were so many blasts leading up to the church incident the city was called ‘Bombingham’ and there was a Black neighborhood nicknamed ‘Dynamite Hill.’

"When you think about Dr. King and all they did for the cause of freedom, it was like a war going on," Cross told the students. "I want you all to see how serious this movement was."

She then asked them to raise their hands if they would have fought back versus following King’s non-violent principles. About 25 percent of the kids raised their hands.

Just before taking a few questions from the students, Cross asked them to promise her that when they were old enough they would register to vote. That way, King and the girls’ deaths would not be in vain, she said.

"You may not remember the names of my friends, but do remember four little girls who lost their lives for the cause of freedom," Cross urged them.