Othello Cross spent over forty years serving the Pine Bluff community and its legal needs, even representing many Arkansas farmers in a landmark racial discrimination case against the United States Department of Agriculture.
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Othello Caleb Cross was born on March 17, 1938, in Cleveland, Mississippi, to KP and Henrietta Lyles Cross with the assistance of a midwife at their family home. He was born into poverty, but his hardworking parents ensured he knew the value of discipline and perseverance. As a result, Cross excelled academically from primary to high school. In 1957, he graduated from the Cleveland Colored Consolidated High School and received a football scholarship to attend Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
While at Arkansas AM&N, Othello studied biology, joined the Gamma Sigma Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., and became the quarterback for the AM&N Golden Lions Football Team. As quarterback, he even competed against his brother, Freddy Cross, who was the quarterback at Alcorn A&M College, now Alcorn State University. It was also at Arkansas AM&N that he met Celestine Tyus, who became his wife in 1962.
Cross graduated from AM&N in 1961 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, and was soon hired as a biology teacher and football coach at Townsend Park High School in Pine Bluff. While at Townsend High School, his team won four state AA championships. He coached a record 69 wins with only 7 loses and 2 draws. Cross’ coaching philosophy was instrumental in his team’s success as he believed that losses were just temporary setbacks, and “there is always a way to win – it was just a matter of finding the way.”
In the late 1960s Cross was promoted to assistant coach at Dollarway High school when the previously segregated Townsend Park High School merged with the Dollarway School District. When the head football coach retired in the early 1970s, he expected Cross to take his position because of his exceptional coaching abilities. Instead of promoting Cross, the Dollarway School Board hired a less qualified Caucasian man as the school’s head coach. In response, Cross hired an attorney and sued the Dollarway School District in federal court for racial discrimination. His inability to understand the legal jargon spoken by court officials during his case ignited a deep desire to understand and practice law. After winning the case, Cross resigned from his teaching position at Dollarway High School and used his settlement to attend law school at 35.
Cross earned his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville School of Law in 1978. While there, he met Jesse Kearney and Gene McKissic, whom he later partnered with to establish a law firm in Pine Bluff. Cross also befriended his law professors, Bill and Hilary Clinton. Interested in educational reform, Hilary Clinton was interested in Cross’ views as both a future lawyer and former teacher. In 1979, Cross was admitted to the Arkansas Bar and appointed to the Arkansas State Claims Commission, where he settled claims against the State of Arkansas, its agencies, and its institutions. Cross later moved into private practice where he represented criminal and civil cases.
In 1999, Cross represented African American farmers in Pigford v. Glickman, a federal class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The lawsuit claimed that the USDA had racially discriminated against African American farmers in its distribution of farm loans and assistance from 1981 and 1997. The court found that during this time, Black farmers were denied loans and benefits while white farmers received preferential treatment in the allotment of funds. Worse yet, African American farmers were often humiliated and degraded by USDA officials when applying for these loans and benefits. When they filed complaints with the USDA’s Civil Rights office, which was supposed to investigate these complaints, nothing was ever done.
During the court’s investigations, the USDA's Secretary of Agriculture testified that the USDA had not acted in good faith on the complaints as the appeals were often delayed, and favorable rulings were quickly reversed. The USDA Inspector General also reported that the discrimination complaint process lacked integrity, direction, and accountability because the USDA’s Civil Rights office was not equipped to handle these complaints. The case was finally settled in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 in law. It provided $1.25 billion in funding for successful claimants representing the largest civil rights suit in U.S. history.
Over the years, Cross remained so committed to the well-being of his clients and community that he could never bring himself to retire. He died on June 2, 2022. Cross was a consummate supporter of his HBCU and its commitment to African American advancement. Instead of flowers for his funeral, his family asked that attendees honor his memory through donations to the Carolyn F. Blakely Honors Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard