John Riley Bembry and His Controversial Cross

John Riley Bembry was the great-grandson of the “frolicking” John Bembry.  His branch of the family moved to Texas, then Oklahoma, then California. He was a World War One veteran and desert prospector who lived on the land which is now the Mojave Desert National Reserve. 

The Mojave Cross

The Mojave Cross

John Riley made it his mission to commemorate his fellow soldiers who died in WWI. He did so in 1934 by erecting a six-foot wooden cross on a spot called Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert.  Each year, groups of veterans would gather at the cross to remember their comrades. The cross was eventually replaced with a steel version. When the cross became part of public land in 1994 the event continued.

Five years later, the American Civil Liberties Union opened a Pandora’s box by saying that the National Park Service could not maintain a religious symbol. The cross was covered with plywood for years while the legal struggle continued.

In 2010, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Listen to Nina Totenberg’s summary here. The court decided that the cross could be displayed as long it was one a small piece of private land within the park. Read more here.


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