By Melissa Klaric
Herald Staff Writer
SHENANGO VALLEY —
Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins. They were the girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala.
Barbara Cross, a survivor of the bombing, said she asks every audience in which she shares the story to repeat the girls’ names so they will never be forgotten.
“I thank God our lives were spared so we could share their stories,” Cross said.
She called the girls “Angels of Change.” When they died in the bombing, Denise was 11 years old; and Cynthia, Carole and Addie Mae were each 14.
Cross and Junie Collins-Williams, another survivor, were the keynote speakers Saturday for a program at Penn State Shenango marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing, which also injured several people.
The church was the site of many civil rights protest marches during the 1960s in Birmingham, a significant religious center for the city’s black population and routine meeting place for civil rights organizers like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the program, Hermitage commissioners and Sharon City Council both presented the women with proclamations recognizing the bombings as a vital reminder of the civil rights struggle.
“It reminds us that the struggle was difficult and many people suffered to make things different,” William Moder, president of the Hermitage Board of Commissioners, said.
Moder commended both women for their courage and their desire to make a difference.
The women answered questions at a press conference prior to the formal program.
After years of silence, Collins-Williams said she felt compelled to tell the story.
“We must share a story to motivate young people to make a difference in their corner of the planet,” Collins-Williams said.
Cross teared up as she spoke of the bombings and her father, John Cross, pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church at the time.
She said after the homemade bomb exploded, he recited a psalm from the Bible through a megaphone outside the church in an effort to calm young activists running angry through the streets.
Sometime later, Rev. Cross told his daughter that he felt guilty for having King come to speak at the church. She said bombings followed King, so much so that Birmingham had been nicknamed “Bombingham.”
In tears from the painful memories, Cross spoke of her father’s courage and she spoke of forgiveness. She said she does not hate those responsible for the bombing, she hates what they did.
“My physical scars are gone but the emotional scars; I don’t know when that’s going to go away,” Cross said.
She said her body shook for a long time afterward and the sound of the bomb going off reverberated in her head for about 10 years.
“We like to think of ourselves as survivors, not victims,” Cross said.
Cross and Collins-Williams were both at the church attending Sunday school on that fateful day. Cross suffered a gash in her head.
Addie Mae, Collins-Williams’ sister, was found alive in the rubble and died later in the emergency room of a local hospital.
Collins-Williams spoke of being in Sunday school that day in the church and hearing the explosion like it just happened yesterday.
Cross said that most of her siblings will not speak of the bombing.
“However difficult, I want to share the story. I want the next generation to remember this,” Cross said.
The Shenango Valley Interdenominational Clergywomen’s Alliance and Penn State Shenango were instrumental in bringing the two women to the valley to share their stories.
The pair will speak at 5 p.m. today in Hour of Power Full Gospel Tabarnacle in Farrell.