April 18, 2024

By Michael McCray –I grew up on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Since my parents worked there, I attended UAPB for nursery school—and I hated it. In fact, I staged my first campus protest when I walked out of kindergarten and said, “I’m gonna go find my daddy!” I was one day away from becoming a Pre-K dropout. Then I met Earl Kevin Blakely playing in a ditch on Watson Boulevard. We’ve been best friends and inseparable ever since. The Blakely’s became my second family.

Back then, Neil Blakely would often regale me and his son Kevin with stories about Buffalo and Dujack, Walter “Sonny” Johnson and Vedale Dickson, not to mention Robert Morehead and Othello Cross. And, of course, John Walker and their escapades. Later, when I was a young politico at Georgetown Law School. I learned even more about Black lawyers in Arkansas from Carol Willis and the struggle Black law students had with graduating from law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and passing the Arkansas Bar.

Yesterday, we laid one of those good (civil rights) lawyers to rest. Othello Cross was a hard-working, hard-drinking, chain-smoking and sometimes surly man. He preferred Kool cigarettes, Crown Royal whiskey, and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. He could be a little cantankerous, but if he was for you—he was for you! And I thank him for supporting my run for alderman. I think later in life, being a “FOB,” friend of Bill Clinton may have paid off when he became one of the led counsels in the Black Farmers lawsuit in Pickford v. Glickman. Like the Black farmers, I also experienced and fought racism in the program areas at U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). I reported $40 million in waste, fraud and abuse in Rural Development in McCray v. Glickman. So, we shared a comrade as Kappa lawyers battling against USDA.

Attorney Othello Caleb Cross was born on March 17, 1938, to the late KP and Henrietta (Lyles) Cross in the family home at 1027 Johnson Street in Cleveland, Mississippi with the assistance of a midwife. Although he was born in material poverty, his family instilled within him the values of steadfast determination and unrelenting drive. These values helped shape his belief and personal motto that “hard work brings about favorable results.”

Othello excelled academically in his primary and secondary grades, which set the foundation for his achievements in high school. He lettered in football and, upon graduating from Cleveland Colored Consolidated High School in 1957, received a football scholarship to Arkansas AM&N College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. While at UAPB, Othello studied biology intending to attend medical school. 

In 1958 Othello joined the Gamma Sigma Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Othello also displayed his athletic prowess by securing the coveted position of quarterback for the UAPB Golden Lions Football Team. HBCU football fans were delighted as Othello led the Golden Lions against Alcorn A&M College (now Alcorn State University). His brother, Freddy Cross, was Alcorn’s quarterback. Despite Othello’s academic and athletic success, his greatest accomplishment at UAPB was becoming acquainted with Miss Celestine Tyus, a pretty, petite cheerleader from Greenbrier, Ark. They married in 1962 and began their happy lives together on Watson Boulevard.

After graduating from UAPB with a Bachelor of Science in Biology in 1961, Othello was hired as a biology teacher and football coach at Townsend Park High School. His coaching philosophy was “there is always a way to win – it was just a matter of finding the way.” His teams never lost. They merely suffered from “temporary setbacks” until he found a way to coach them to win. And win he did! His teams won four state AA championships and Coach Cross compiled a 69-7-2 record.

Othello emerged as the assistant football coach and biology teacher at Dollarway High School after segregated Townsend Park High School merged with the Dollarway School District in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, the head Dollarway football coach retired, leaving the spot vacant for Othello due to his outstanding coaching abilities. When the Dollarway School Board hired a less qualified Caucasian man for the head coaching job despite Othello’s better record, Othello fought back. He hired an attorney and successfully sued the Dollarway School District in federal court for racial discrimination. During the time Cross v. Board of Ed. of Dollarway, Ark. School District was litigated, Othello sat in the courtroom unable to understand the legal jargon spoken between the judge and the lawyers. With the money he received from the settlement, Othello resigned from his position at Dollarway High School and headed for law school at the age of 35.

Othello earned his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville School of Law in 1978. While there, he and his future law partners, Jesse Kearney and Gene McKissic, would discuss case law and legal complexities. Othello also became friends with his law professors, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton was drawn to Othello because he was a former teacher, and she was interested in educational reform. In 1979 Othello was admitted to the Arkansas Bar. Shortly after that, Othello was appointed to the Arkansas State Claims Commission. He adjudicated claims against the State of Arkansas, its agencies, and its institutions.

Upon entering private practice, Othello represented clients in civil proceedings as well as those requiring criminal defense services. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Othello faced a familiar, albeit larger foe, when he represented African American farmers in Pigford v. Glickman. This was a landmark federal class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the USDA. The case was finally settled in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which provided $1.25 billion in funding for successful claimants.

Despite several threats to retire over the last several years, Othello remained committed to his clients and the community. In 2008 the Arkansas House of Representatives presented Othello with a citation recognizing 50 years with his beloved KAΨ. In addition, he continued to support his alma mater and was a steadfast advocate for all HBCUs.

Othello lived a life of significance and service. He worked diligently to benefit the lives he touched in all his career endeavors. Those under his tutelage were enriched and their lives favorably impacted, whether he was teaching, coaching, or practicing law. Othello could be demanding, stubborn, impatient, or defiant on occasion. However, those that knew him as “Cross”, “Daddy”, “Uncle Shine”, “Grandpa”, “Papa”, or “Coach Cross” have no doubt he was a loving, caring, strong Black man. On June 2, 2022, Othello was called home to be with the Lord.

We will pass the loving cup of brotherhood when we meet again on the Golden Shores of Kappa. As for tonight, I think I’ll drink a little Crown Royal in memory of Attorney Othello Cross… I might even smoke a Kool.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests those who wish to express sympathy to consider making a donation to the Carolyn F. Blakely Honors Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in the memory of Othello C. Cross.

University of Pine Bluff Arkansas Development Office

Memory of Othello C. Cross 

Carolyn F. Blakely Honors Program 

1200 North University Dr. 

Mail Slot 4981 

Pine Bluff, AR 71611

Donations can also be made at: http://www.uapb.edu/giving/ways_to_give.aspx

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