James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister, became nationally known as a martyr to the civil rights cause when he died on 11 March 1965, in Selma, Alabama, after being attacked by a group of white supremacists. Reeb had traveled to Selma to answer Martin Luther King’s call for clergy to support the nonviolent protest movement for voting rights there. Delivering Reeb’s eulogy, King called him “a shining example of manhood at its best” (King, 15 March 1965).
Reeb was born on New Year’s Day 1927, in Wichita, Kansas. He was raised in Kansas and Casper, Wyoming. After a tour of duty in the Army at the end of World War II, Reeb became a minister, graduating first from a Lutheran college in Minnesota, and then from Princeton Theological Seminary in June 1953. Although ordained a Presbyterian minister, Reeb transferred to the Unitarian Church and became assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1959. In September 1963 Reeb moved to Boston to work for the American Friends Service Committee. He bought a home in a slum neighborhood and enrolled his children in the local public schools, where many of the children were black.
On 7 March 1965, Reeb and his wife watched television news coverage of police attacking demonstrators in Selma as they attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The following day, King sent out a call to clergy around the country to join him in Selma in a second attempt at a Selma to Montgomery March that Tuesday, 9 March. Reeb heard about King’s request from the regional office of the Unitarian Universalist Association on the morning of 8 March, and was on a plane heading south that evening.
As Reeb was flying toward Selma, King was considering whether to disobey a pending court order against the Tuesday march to Montgomery. In the end he decided to march, telling the hundreds of clergy who had gathered at Brown’s Chapel, “I would rather die on the highways of Alabama, than make a butchery of my conscience” (King, 9 March 1965). King led the group of marchers to the far side of the bridge, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers, they rose and retreated back across the bridge to Brown’s Chapel, avoiding a violent confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether or not to obey the court order.
Several clergy decided to return home after this symbolic demonstration. Reeb, however, decided to stay in Selma until court permission could be obtained for a full scale march, planned for the coming Thursday. That evening, Reeb and two other white Unitarians dined at an integrated restaurant. Afterward they were attacked by several white men and Reeb was clubbed on the head. Several hours elapsed before Reeb was admitted to a Birmingham hospital where doctors performed brain surgery. While Reeb was on his way to the hospital in Birmingham, King addressed a press conference lamenting the “cowardly” attack and asking all to pray for his protection (King, 10 March 1965). Reeb died two days later.
Reeb’s death provoked mourning throughout the country, and tens of thousands held vigils in his honor. President Lyndon B. Johnson called Reeb’s widow and father to express his condolences, and on 15 March he invoked Reeb’s memory when he delivered a draft of the Voting Rights Act to Congress. That same day King eulogized Reeb at a ceremony at Brown’s Chapel in Selma. “James Reeb,” King told the audience, “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” (King, 15 March 1965).
In April 1965 three white men were indicted for Reeb’s murder; they were acquitted that December. The Voting Rights Act was passed on 6 August 1965.
Garrow, Protest at Selma, 1978.
Howlett, No Greater Love, 1966.
Johnson, “Special Message to Congress: The American Promise,” 15 March 1965, in Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, bk. 1, 1966.
King, Address to Selma marchers, 9 March 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Eulogy for James Reeb, 15 March 1965, CBC.
King, Statement on the beating of Orloff Miller, James Reeb, and Clark Olsen, 10 March 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
King to Elder G. Hawkins, 8 March 1965, NCCR-PPPrHi.