James Reeb 40th Anniversary
By Pastor Bruce Benson
Mar. 8, 2005

Next week marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of a federal civil rights voting act by then President, Lyndon Johnson. It gave all citizens equal voting rights -- in spite of objections from the Governor of Alabama and other segregationist officials. This bill-signing ceremony was a momentous civil-rights occasion. But Martin Luther King did not attend.

Three civil rights workers in the south had been found murdered and buried a few months earlier. Another young voter registration worker in Alabama had been murdered just days earlier. It was time for the bill to be signed into law, and President Johnson invited Martin Luther King Jr. to attend the ceremony in Washington DC. He declined. Not out of fear, not out of disapproval, not out of skepticism, but in order to stay in Selma, Alabama to deliver the eulogy at the funeral service of a St. Olaf graduate.

Friday of this week is the 40th anniversary of the death of James Reeb in an Alabama hospital. And 40 years ago today this Ole grad was attacked on a street of Selma, Alabama and left with the crushed skull that caused his death.

Martin Luther King began his eulogy for James Reeb by quoting Shakespeare: "And if he should die, take his body, and cut it into little stars. He will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night." "These beautiful words," said Dr. King, "so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb."

After graduating from St. Olaf, James Reeb went to Princeton Theological Seminary where he received the M.Div degree. By the spring of 1965, he was doing social ministry in Massachusetts. Because he was interested in, and concerned about, the success of the civil rights movement in America, he was watching television the evening of March 6, 1965.

That day was called "Bloody Sunday" in Alabama. Martin Luther King and a few hundred others had decided to defy Alabama Governor George Wallace and stage a march for voter rights in Selma, Alabama.

They made it only the very short distance to the Edmund Pettus Bridge when police clubs and tear gas turned the peaceful march into a bloody beating. It was shown on the national news for all to see.

James Reeb was already among those who had spoken out for civil rights, de-segregation, an end to Jim Crow laws, and full integration of all races of people into American life and society.

So that Sunday night when Martin Luther King called on clergy of all denominations to come to Selma to march with him in two days, James Reeb and his wife were listening. To go could be dangerous. And there were the four Reeb children to think about. There had already been murders, and that very night 50 more people were hospitalized from the injuries they suffered at the hands of Alabama law enforcement. He called an African American clergy friend; both decided it was more important in that moment of history to take a stand for justice than to remain in the safety of home.

Therefore, on March 8th, James Reeb was in Selma, Alabama along with former St. Olaf Board of Regents Chair Martin Marty and many others who responded to King's request.

Again that day, the march was halted. This time, Dr. King feared an ambush. Reeb had intended to go home after the march that day, but now was persuaded to stay for another attempt. That evening, he and two friends got some dinner in a local restaurant -- not one of the "whites only" restaurants, but one run by local black citizens. When they had eaten and left, they were walking to the church where marchers were meeting again to plan the next march for a day as soon as possible. James Reeb never made it to that meeting. Four white men attacked him on the street. His two friends recovered from being kicked and beaten, but James was struck from behind by a heavy piece of wood. It crushed the left side of his head.

At his memorial service, held in Selma on the day that President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King concluded his eulogy with these remarks:

Naturally, we are compelled to ask the question, Who killed James Reeb? The answer is simple and rather limited when we think of the who. He was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder. There is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask this afternoon. It is the question 'What killed James Reeb?' When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and responsibility grows.

What King said next is addressed to me, and to all of us. "James Reeb," he said, "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." He said more too, about the timidity of government to do what is right, about lawlessness masquerading as law, about bystanders, white or black, who remain on the sidelines." And then he said:

In his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike: that we must substitute courage for caution, it 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.

In whatever ways and in whatever places the world is still the way it was in March of 1965, those ways and places remind us of what killed St. Olaf graduate, James Reeb, and they call us to dedicate ourselves not to be complicit in any more such deaths. May he rest in God's peace.