Vol. 4, No. 20 / Jan. 21-Jan. 27, 2002
Nancy J. Ashmore

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. — and
a little-known St. Olaf connection to his legacy

“In his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike — 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 which 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.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the Civil Rights Memorial that architect Maya Lin designed for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., water cascades over a curved black granite wall engraved with the words, paraphrased from the Book of Amos, that Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted on several occasions: “... until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Water also flows over the circular black granite table in front of the wall. Emerging from a central source, it glides over the names of 40 people killed between 1954 and 1968 in the struggle for civil rights, names inscribed in the table like the hands of a clock and accompanied by brief descriptions of how and when they died.

The first name is that of George Lee. A minister and one of the first black people registered to vote in Humphreys County, he used his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to vote. White officials offered Lee protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused and was murdered on May 7, 1955, in Belzoni, Miss.

The last name is that of King. A Baptist minister and a major architect of the civil rights movement, he led and inspired major non-violent desegregation campaigns. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, as he prepared to lead a demonstration in Memphis, Tenn.

Between them are the names of others who were targeted for death because of their civil rights activities, those who were random victims of vigilantes determined to halt the movement, and those who, in the sacrifice of their own lives, brought a new awareness of the struggle to people all over the world.

They include names familiar to many students of the civil rights movement: Emmet Till, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Medgar Evers.

They also include less familiar names, such as those of Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Joseph Reeb.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by state troopers on Feb. 26, 1965, as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers. His death led to the Selma-Montgomery march.

James Reeb, a minister from Boston, was among many white clergyman who joined the Selma marchers after the attack by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 9, 1965, Reeb was beaten by white men while he walked down a Selma street; he died two days later from his injuries, producing an uproar that resonated to the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the events in Selma “an American tragedy,” which, he said, should strengthen people’s determination “to bring full and equal and exact justice to all of our people.” Johnson’s voting rights proposal reached Congress the Monday after Reeb’s death.

It was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, one that the faculty, staff, students and friends of this college should take special note of — because James Reeb was a 1950 graduate of St. Olaf.

A life of worth and service
James Reeb was born in Wichita, Kan., and moved with his family to Casper, Wyo., when he was in his mid-teens. He graduated from St. Olaf in 1950 with a major in history and entered Princeton Theological Seminary. Three years later, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister and took his first assignment as a chaplain in Philadelphia General Hospital. In the course of the spiritual journey that followed, he entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry, becoming assistant minister of All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., in 1959.

In September, 1964, Reeb, his wife, and their four children moved to Boston where Reeb was to direct a low-income housing program in Roxbury for the American Friends Service Committee. By virtue of living and working in a neglected area of the city, Reeb soon experienced the effects of racism: de facto school segregation and inadequate delivery of city services. The protest movement in the South against more blatant forms of racism held his attention as well.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, millions of television viewers witnessed the savage beating — on Route 80 outside Selma — of 650 peaceful demonstrators. Responding to Martin Luther King’s call to clergy of all denominations for witness in Selma, Reeb arrived there on the morning of March 9, 1965, in time to participate in a peaceful march to the same place on Route 80 where the earlier march had been met with violence.

Reeb decided to stay in Selma in the hope that a court injunction against the full march to Montgomery would be lifted on Thursday. After dinner, he and two other ministers, Clark Olson and Orloff Miller, were attacked in the streets of Selma by four white men. Reeb, who was walking on the outside, nearest the curb, was struck on the side of the head with a heavy stick. He was taken first to a local hospital and then to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham, where surgery was performed to no avail. He died about 48 hours after the attack.

A eulogy by Martin Luther King
Reeb’s death inspired a wave of nationwide protests, memorial services and calls for federal action, transforming Reeb into a martyr and creating the groundswell Johnson needed to introduce new voting rights legislation. Four days after Reeb’s death, Johnson invoked his memory — “that good man” — as he introduced the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress. Johnson invited King to attend the historic speech — but King turned him down in order to deliver James Reeb’s eulogy in Selma the same day.

Despite the significance of the day, King’s eulogy never was published — until last year when staff members at the UU World tracked down a sound recording of the speech, transcribed it and printed it with permission of the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The speech can be read in its entirety, in Adobe PDF format, via a link “A Witness to Truth” at http://www.uua.org/world/2001/02/ Here, however, is an excerpt:

“In his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike — 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 which 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.

“God still has a way of bringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of this fine servant of God may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark state. This tragic death may lead our nation to substitute aristocracy of character for aristocracy of color. James Reeb may cause the whole citizenry of Alabama to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.

“So, in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. As preceding speakers have said so eloquently, we must not become bitter nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence; we must not lose faith in our white brothers who happen to be misguided. Somehow we must still believe that the most misguided among them will learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personalities.”

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