Rev. James Reeb was born 93 years ago on Jan. 1, 1927.
On March 11, 1965 at age 38, this courageous, woke, frontline, pro-Black white man was murdered following a savage beating by white thugs simply because he promoted Black equality.
This married father of four was born in Wichita, Kansas, and ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1953 before moving to Pennsylvania, where he was appointed chaplain at Philadelphia General Hospital.
But Reeb resigned four years later following his conversion to the Unitarian Church because of its emphasis on social action. As a Unitarian clergyman, he immediately began his activism in the Civil Rights Movement and called on his white parishioners to do the same.
When he served as the youth director at the West Philadelphia YMCA branch from 1957-1959, he moved his family to a poor Black neighborhood so they could see firsthand the racist poverty experienced by their Black brothers and sisters. While working there, he got rid of the racist quota system formerly used in the YMCA’s busing program.
Incidentally, it was during Reeb’s time in Philadelphia that he publicly expressed his opposition to capital punishment when a group of Black teens were arrested for the murder of a Korean student. He took the position that instead of condemning those young Black men for this tragic crime, white America should condemn itself for creating the racism, the poverty, the miseducation, and the alienation that laid the foundation for this murder and other serious “Black-committed” violent crime.
From 1960-1962, he and his family lived in a poverty-stricken Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., when he was the assistant minister at All Souls Church. And it was in 1962 that he became fully ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Two years afterward, Reeb worked in Boston at the American Friends Service Committee’s Metropolitan Housing Program as its community relations director and fought tirelessly against housing discrimination while living in a poor Black neighborhood in Boston’s Roxbury section.
After joining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he traveled on March 9, 1965, to Alabama to actively assist in the struggle for voting rights following the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery march two days earlier that had been led by SCLC official Hosea Williams (who was MLK’s right-hand man) and 25-year-old future Georgia Congressman John Lewis.
That March 7 date is known historically as “Bloody Sunday” because, as the nonviolent protesting men, women and children were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge — named after the grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan — white state troopers and deputy sheriffs sadistically attacked them with whips wrapped in barbed wire, beat them with heavy wooden clubs, shot them with bruising rubber bullets and suffocated them with eye-burning teargas.
At 7:30 pm on March 9, after a meal at Walker’s Cafe, an integrated restaurant in Selma, Reeb and two other white Unitarian ministers — the Revs. Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller — were barbarically beaten with heavy wooden clubs by four white thugs. And the focus of the gangbangers’ rage was directed to the head and face of Reeb.
As Olsen described it, the blow to Reeb “was with a three-foot club” and “was a two-handed swing in the style of a left-handed batter.”
Reeb had been beaten so severely that he needed to be rushed to the closest hospital for emergency treatment. However, the closest facility was a small Black infirmary that was unable to treat him because it had been systemically denied quality medical equipment for neurological and other potentially fatal head injuries.
As a result, Reeb was eventually transported much farther away to the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham. Sadly, at 7:00 p.m. on March 11, he died primarily due to the horrific bludgeoning that crushed his skull and secondarily due to the additional travel time that delayed the urgent brain surgery.
Based on eyewitness testimony and incriminating physical evidence, three Alabama white men were indicted, arrested, charged and tried. But they were quickly acquitted on Dec. 10, 1965, by an all-white jury (that included a Nazi-sympathizer, an avowed church segregationist and the brother of a key defense witness). A fourth man who had been indicted, arrested, and charged was never tried because he fled to Mississippi, which refused extradition.
Despite that, none of them really won. Instead, Reeb ultimately won four months before the verdict and five months after the murder because the battle that he voluntarily and selflessly sacrificed his life for became law of the land on Aug. 6, 1965, with the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As MLK said during Reeb’s March 15 eulogy at Brown Chapel in Selma:
Naturally, we are compelled to ask... “Who killed James Reeb...?” [But] there is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask.... It is the question, “What killed James Reeb?” When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minster of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church [system] 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... brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in... [foreign lands] yet cannot protect the lives of its own [Black] citizens seeking constitutional rights.
Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts... evil... segregation... [and] who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.
MLK was right, you know. So let the church say, “Amen!”
And let us all say, “Happy 93rd Birthday, Ally/Ancestor/Brother Rev. James Reeb!”