Friday, March 18, 2011

For the Love of the World: Rev. James Reeb

The announcement by the FBI's Cold Case Initiative that it is reopening its investigation into an all but forgotten case from 46 years ago brought back memories of a monumental time in not too far distant American history: a time of great change, tinged with tragedy certainly-- but with great heroism as well.

On January 18, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Selma for the opening of Project Alabama, a massive civil rights effort aimed at securing the unobstructed right to vote for the black people of that state.

Week after week, black men and women demonstrated in the streets of Selma, demanding their rights. They were met with stiff resistance from local police and the Alabama State Highway Patrol. Finally on March 7, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Jefferson Davis Highway, just outside the city, "Wallace's Storm Troopers"-- as the Highway Patrol had become known-- with billy clubs flailing, charged a group of demonstrators. Scores of demonstrators were beaten to the ground, and then the police regrouped again. This time, they fired canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The marchers fell back in clouds of dense smoke, choking and crying in pain.

But "Wallace's Storm Troopers" weren't done yet. As white onlookers cheered, the mounted police again charged into the crowd of demonstrators, lashing them with bull whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Reeling under the blows, the blacks retreated back to Brown Chapel in the city, the road behind littered with broken bodies.

The air still reeked with tear gas as Martin Luther King sent out a flurry of telegrams to religious leaders across the country. "Come to Selma," he implored them. It was time for well-meaning white people across the land to get off the sidelines: Come to Selma; get directly involved in the struggle of black Americans for freedom and justice. A massive interfaith "Ministers' March for Montgomery" was scheduled for Tuesday, March 9.

In Boston, a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb decided to respond to Dr. King's call. He made his way to Selma, as did scores of other UU ministers from across the country. They were joined by colleagues from countless other faith traditions as well, and overnight, it seemed, perhaps 500 ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns had descended on Selma to stand together for freedom. Governor Wallace branded them  "agitators-- one and all". "Why not?" shot back one black clergyman. "The agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out."

On Tuesday morning, the "Ministers' March" began as planned, and proceeded again to the Pettus Bridge. There, they were turned away: a court injunction had been filed, forbidding them from marching onward to Montgomery. But by their presence alone, an important point had been made, and the conscience of a nation seemed to be aroused at last. The "Ministers' March" made its way back toward Selma.

That night, James Reeb and several colleagues had dinner at a black cafe in Selma. Then, they parted company, one group going in one direction, while another group-- Reeb, Orloff Miller, and Clark Olsen-- headed back toward their hotel. As they walked past the Silver Moon Cafe in a white part of town, a voice rang out and four white toughs emerged from the shadows. They fell upon the ministers, swinging clubs wildly in the air. One kept hitting Reeb's head, as though swinging a baseball bat. Reeb lapsed into a coma. He died two days later. He was 38 years old. 

He had been born in Wichita, Kansas, on New Year's Day in 1927. Even though the Second World War was drawing to a close, and the call up of new troops had already been suspended, Reeb enlisted in the U.S. Army days after his eighteenth birthday in 1945. He wanted to play at least a small role, he said, in the battle against tyranny and fascism. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1953. Soon, he found his way into the more liberal Unitarian faith. He was called as assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, DC, in 1959, but left there in September 1964 to become Community Relations Director of the Boston Community Housing Program of the American Friends Service Committee.

Reeb had moved from a comfortable parsonage in suburban Chevy Chase to a simple house in Dorchester, one of the most run-down areas of Boston's inner city. He had given up serving a prosperous and prestigious congregation in order to support a risky attempt at community organization in Roxbury. He made the move because he thought it was the right thing to do, because he felt by doing so he was an answering some deep inner calling to the authentic work that was his to do in life. He had wanted originally to serve an inner city congregation within his own denomination, but was unable to find one that offered the challenge he was seeking. In frustration, he had written to a friend in the spring of 1964, "[The Department of Ministry] assures me they will get my name on lists of 'desirable churches'. If there's anything I'm not interested in, it is joining the lists of those looking for 'desirable churches'..."

His inner light led him then to Boston. When he arrived in Dorchester, he wrote to a friend: "I have seized the bull by the horns-- I am doing what seems important and let the damn torpedoes come!"

James Reeb was never one to accept a challenge half-way. He was a man who could not rest until his ideals became enshrined in the day to day living of his life. He didn't just want to work in the inner city; he wanted it to become his home-- his family's home-- as well. It would have been hypocrisy, he felt, to descend on the inner city by day as a sort of "white savior", only to slink off to the comfort of the suburbs when night fell. From the very start, Reeb and his wife, Marie, and their four children plunged into the community life of Dorchester and Roxbury. They were often the only white faces in the crowd; their children were the only white children in their school. When Reeb arrived in Selma in March of 1965, an old friend greeted him with the words, "I knew you would be here!" He would never make it back home to Boston.

 After Reeb's death on March 11, groups nationwide staged demonstrations in his memory and in support of the cause of civil rights for which he had died. Over 30,000 men and women gathered in Boston for a service in his memory. At Rev. Reeb's memorial service at Brown Chapel in Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a moving eulogy.  He began by praising the heroic example presented by people like James Reeb:

"The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers."

But then, Dr. King raised the question, "Who killed James Reeb?" His answer:

"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism..."

President Lyndon Johnson was deeply moved by the death of James Reeb. Upon hearing of the attack on the ministers on March 9, he immediately telephoned Marie Reeb, and arranged for an airplane to fly her to Alabama. Along with the events of Bloody Sunday, Reeb's death galvanized the President's support for the Civil Rights Movement. On March 15, Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress and urged immediate passage of a comprehensive Voting Rights Act:

"At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed...

"But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

By August, the Voting Rights Act had been passed by Congress and signed into law.

Following the attack on James Reeb, several men were arrested and charged with murder. They were immediately released on bond, and just a few months after Reeb's death, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle, and O'Neal Hoggle of all charges. For 46 years, Reeb's case was relegated to the FBI's Cold Case Unit, where it remained until the forty-sixth anniversary of the minister's death on March 11, 2011.

The prophetic call of modern times, James Reeb believed, was the call toward human freedom and social justice. "Whom shall I send to comfort my people?" the voice of God asks in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Like the ancient prophets, James Reeb's answer, too, was "Here I am. Send me."


  1. This story gave me chills. Great work, Rev. Jeff.

  2. Thank you for reminding us that good men and women of sacrificial spirit can make a difference if they try! Let us not shy away from following such a brave role model as James Reeb!

  3. Rev Jeff,
    Wow, Rev. James Reeb was a hero, God bless him
    in Heaven. How many "Whites" would have stuck their necks out for civil rights? not many!!
    what a perfect roll model for us all
    Thank you, Jeff, for this poignant article you researched and wrote. wonderful.
    Warm wishes, Dana W.

  4. I'm an old friend of the family who dated this great man's daughter some thirty years ago. I came across this article while doing research on the civil rights movement with my sixth grade daughter who is doing a report on MLK. Want to say to Karen and family how honored I am to have some small connection to this important time in our countries history. Merry Christmas and happy new year, M.S.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I attend James Reeb UU Congregation in Madison, WI.