Cross, the son of John H. and Margie Ann Cross grew up in Haynes, Arkansas. He graduated from Lincoln High School in Forrest City and was ordained a minister at Springfield Missionary Baptist Church. He joined the U.S. Army after high school and became an assistant chaplain. After his discharge he worked as a schoolteacher and earned a bachelor's degree in social science (1950) and a master's of divinity (1959) from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia.
Before coming to Birmingham, Cross pastored Gravel Hill Baptist Church in Virginia. Though he was not a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he did support the cause by making his church, convenient to City Hall and the downtown business district, available as a meeting place and rallying point. His sermon for September 15, 1963, entitled "A Rock that will not Roll", was never delivered because of the bombing of the church earlier in the morning. The explosion caused the deaths of four young girls and injured 22 others. Instead of preaching, Cross spent the rest of the morning digging through rubble in search of survivors.
As a large crowd gathered and tensions mounted, with some people throwing rubble at passing white drivers, Cross picked up a bullhorn and recited aloud the 23rd Psalm. He later officiated at the joint funeral of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. Martin Luther King Jr gave the eulogy.
After leaving 16th Street, Cross taught and directed the Baptist Student Center at Alabama State University. In 1972 he became associate pastor at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur. In 1977 he moved to Decatur, Georgia to become director of black church relations for the Atlanta Baptist Association. He remained at that post until his retirement in 1989. During his retirement he continued to minister at youth development centers and as an interim pastor.
- "Man who pastored Sixteenth Street church in 1963 dies in Atlanta at 82". (November 17, 2007) Birmingham News.
- Schudel, Matt (November 19, 2007) "The Rev. John H. Cross, Jr. 82; pastor of church bombed in 1963." The Washington Post.