The Incredible Story of Reverend James Reeb

Posted: February 19, 2017 in Amazing and Interesting Stories, Inspiration
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Not all heroes look the part.

Not all heroes look the part.

You know, sometimes I’ll come across a certain person in history that I believe people should know about. This story is about one of those people . . .

James Reeb was born in 1927 and grew up in Casper, Wyoming. He was a conservative Christian, and after college he began preparation for the ministry. He soon began to question his faith and eventually became a Unitarian minister. He went on to serve the All Souls Congregation in a racially mixed neighborhood in Washington, DC. There, Rev. Reeb organized programs and projects to help the poor.

In July, 1964, he left All Souls to accept a position with the American Friends Service Committee. He and his family, which now included his wife Marie and their four children, moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts and began working to make living conditions better in largely black, economically depressed neighborhoods of Boston. He came to understand that the suffering he witnessed resulted from fundamental inequalities in society and government’s treatment of people according to the color of their skin— something called systemic racism.

Reeb was a member of the Unitarian Arlington Street Church in Boston, but he frequently preached as a guest minister in nearby suburban congregations. He used these opportunities to urge people in largely white congregations and communities to pay attention to and work to change racial injustice. He spoke against the racial disparities enforced by laws in the South and by economic and social segregation in the North.

In 1965, while Rev. James Reeb worked in Boston, events were unfolding in the civil rights movement in the state of Alabama.

Alabama’s archaic Jim Crow laws used a “separate but equal” system that was anything but equal. The fundamental right to vote was denied African Americans. The system of discrimination and oppression ruled nearly every aspect of life and was reinforced with violence not only by lawless citizens but also by elected officials and police. It was an ugly time. Beatings, vandalism, and even murder awaited anyone who did anything to challenge the system. On February 26th an Alabama state trooper killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black Civil Rights worker, setting off the chain of events that would eventually bring thousands of Civil Rights Freedom Fighters to Selma, Alabama.

In response to Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called for a march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for all citizens.

600 Civil Rights activists gathered in Selma to join a planned march to Montgomery, the State capital. The march began on March 7, 1965, a day we now know as Bloody Sunday. On the outskirts of Selma, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, marchers encountered a line of police carrying billy clubs, guns, and gas masks. Police charged into the marchers, clubs swinging, and followed up the clubbing with tear gas.

National television carried it all, including to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where James and Marie Reeb watched.

Then came what is known as the Call to Selma. Dr. Martin Luther King called on people of all faiths from across the country to come to Selma and march with him to Montgomery. All over the United States, ministers and lay leaders alike wrestled with the call to come to Selma. Should they go? Should they march, putting themselves in the midst of the violence they had all seen on television? Should they urge others in their faith communities to do the same? James Reeb thought hard about whether to leave his wife and four young children. In the end, he decided he had to help. it was crucial for people of faith to bear witness to what was happening in Alabama. He said good-bye to his family and boarded a fateful flight to Selma.

James Reeb was with thousands who gathered on Tuesday to march but were again turned back at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Afterwards Reeb and others decided to stay in Selma and try again on Thursday. That night, a group of ministers went out to dinner at a place called Walker’s, one of the few racially integrated restaurants in the area. While others departed by car after dinner, Reeb and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers, Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, left on foot.

The three headed to the chapel where Dr. King was to speak. James Reeb walked on the outside, nearest the street. They had not gone far when five white men came towards them from across the street. Frightened, the three walked faster. They realized one of the men had a large club. When the racist attackers reached the three ministers, one swung his heavy stick and smashed the side of James Reeb’s head. Eventually all three men were beaten badly.

After some desperate searching for help in a city that was hostile to “outside agitators,” the three ministers found a phone at the Boynton’s Insurance office and obtained an ambulance from a Negro funeral home next door. Badly hurt, Reeb needed to get to the hospital in Birmingham where there was a neurosurgeon. Miller and Olsen accompanied James Reeb in the ambulance, which was driven by an African American. A police car escorted them through Selma, but incredibly refused to accompany them once the ambulance reached the city limits. Then, just outside the city, the ambulance got a flat tire. There the vehicle was surrounded by a threatening crowd so no dared get out to change the tire. The ambulance drove back to Selma on the rim. Finding a place to make a phone call and find another ambulance was difficult because few black people in the city had phones. They finally found a phone at a radio station where the driver had once worked and called for another ambulance. The badly injured James Reeb was then transferred to it and set out again for Birmingham, this time reaching the hospital where Reeb immediately underwent surgery.

Reeb was in bad shape. News traveled quickly that he had been beaten and was in critical condition. In sharp contrast to the media silence which had greeted Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death two weeks earlier, the evening news all over the country carried the story of the white minister who had been attacked in Selma. President Lyndon Johnson had been notified in the White House, and he sent a government airplane to take Marie Reeb to her husband’s side.

In James Reeb’s hospital room, there was a bouquet of yellow roses from the President of the United States.

On March 11,  2-days after his arrival in Selma, James Reeb died. His death so shocked the country and the U.S. Congress that President Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress within days. Dr. King, invited to Washington to support the Voting Rights Act, declined. Instead, he stayed and delivered the eulogy at James Reeb’s funeral, saying this:

“So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike. He says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murder. His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.”

Amen. James Reeb was a bona fide American Hero.

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