2012-01-19 Service

1 02 2012
Reverend James Reeb
by Darcy Cedarbridge


In the struggles we choose for ourselves, in the ways we move forward in our lives and bring our world forward with us,

It is right to remember the names of those who gave us strength in this choice of living. It is right to name the power of hard lives well lived.

We share a history with those lives. We belong to the same motion.

They too were strengthened by what had gone before. They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.

Those who lived before us, who struggled for justice and suffered injustice before us, have not melted into dust, and have not disappeared.

They are with us still. The lives they lived hold us steady.

Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves. Their courage and love evoke our own.

We, the living, carry them with us: we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.

We take them with us, and with them choose the deeper path of living.

(SLT #721, They Are With Us Still, by Kathleen McTigue)



Tonight’s homily is about Unitarian Universalist minister and martyr James Reeb. From the Encyclopedia of Alabama:

A social worker and Unitarian Universalist minister, Reverend James Reeb (1927-1965) was severely beaten by a group of white men in Selma, Alabama, on March 9, 1965. Reeb died of head trauma two days later in a Birmingham hospital.

His death shocked the nation and was referred to in a press conference by President Lyndon Johnson, who then asked Congress in a national address to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

James Joseph Reeb was born on January 1, 1927, to Harry and Mae Reeb in Wichita, Kansas. The family was poor and moved often while his father searched for work, eventually settling in Wyoming.

As a teenager, he was considered a bright student and an excellent debater, although somewhat of an outcast because of his crossed eyes (which were later surgically corrected). A deeply committed Christian, Reeb unsurprisingly settled on the ministry as a career.

After serving in the Army during World War II, he attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, on the GI Bill and met Marie Deason, whom he married on August 20, 1950. The couple would later have four children.

Reeb entered Princeton Theological Seminary, where he served as chaplain at Philadelphia General Hospital. After graduating in 1953, he continued working at the hospital and also volunteered with inner-city youth through the Philadelphia YMCA.

He was granted fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1959 and moved to Washington, D.C. to become assistant minister at All Souls Church, located in a poor black neighborhood.

There, Reeb organized the University Neighborhood Council to address the growing social needs of the neighborhood surrounding the church, and soon dedicated the majority of his time to social issues.

Leaving the pulpit to pursue social ministry, Reeb moved to Boston to work for the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee, settling with his wife and four children in a poor black neighborhood in Dorchester against the advice of his contemporaries. There he took up the cause of low-income housing, launching a public campaign for new safety and building codes in early 1965.

Reeb was drawn to the civil rights activities in Alabama in response to the violence that occurred on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when local and state law enforcement officials responded with brute force against marchers attempting to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery in a peaceful demonstration for equal voting rights.

After that incident, which garnered worldwide attention and quickly became known as “Bloody Sunday,” Martin Luther King Jr. issued a nationwide call to the clergy, urging representatives of all denominations and faiths to journey to Alabama and stand with African Americans there for the cause of voting rights.

Joining fellow Unitarian ministers Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller, Reeb was part of a large delegation from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association that traveled to Alabama.

Reeb, whose wife and four children remained at home in Boston, planned to make only a long day trip to Alabama. Traveling by plane through Atlanta to Montgomery, he joined a reported 450 fellow clergy from around the nation in Selma at mid-day on Tuesday, March 9, 1965.

The out-of-town clergy who had answered King’s call, together with hundreds of local African American citizens, demonstrated that afternoon at the site of the Bloody Sunday attack. After prayer in the evening, activities ceased until the following day.

Reeb, Olsen, and Miller then headed to a Selma cafe for dinner. Leaving on foot after their meal, the three inadvertently walked onto a side street in the all-white part of town. Passing by the Silver Moon Café, an all-white establishment, and easily identifiable as outsiders associated with the voting rights march, the three ministers were attacked by men with clubs, one of which cracked James Reeb’s skull.

Requiring medical attention and likely to be denied treatment by physicians at Selma’s all-white hospital, Reeb was taken to Burwell Infirmary, the town’s medical facility for African Americans. The head of the infirmary, D. W. Dinkins, immediately determined that treatment from a team of neurologists was necessary to deal with Reeb’s injuries, care that could be obtained closest in Birmingham, 100 miles away.

As physicians in Birmingham were alerted about Reeb’s condition, an ambulance from a black funeral home transported Reeb, Miller, Clark, Dinkins, and an attendant to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) hospital. However, en route to Birmingham, the mixed-race group had to deal with a flat tire and with delayed aid from law enforcement, which had pledged assistance in getting the victim to Birmingham as quickly as possible.

By the time Reeb arrived at UAB, word of his life-threatening injuries at the hands of white supremacists in Alabama had made headlines across the country. Unlike the shooting death of African American activist Jimmy Lee Jackson just three weeks earlier, Reeb’s injuries brought an unprecedented level of attention to the civil rights movement in Selma.

Hundreds of Reeb’s well-wishers gathered outside of Boston’s federal building to stage a Wednesday protest against Selma’s so-called law enforcement. Meanwhile, President Johnson phoned Reeb’s wife, Marie, to offer both his support and an airplane to fly her to Birmingham; he also supplied a plane to fly Reeb’s father to Birmingham from Casper, Wyoming.

Reeb lingered on life support for a day and a half after surgery at UAB. Reporters from throughout the nation kept vigil outside the hospital, and Marie Reeb was interviewed by television reporters on Wednesday evening, March 10.

She explained to them that because he believed in the aims of the civil rights movement, almost nothing could have stopped her husband from going to Selma, though he knew the risks associated with doing so.

On the morning after that interview, Reeb was taken off life support and passed away. He was 38 years old.

Upon learning of Reeb’s death, groups nationwide staged demonstrations in support of the civil rights movement and in memory of the young minister considered to have given his life to the cause.

A formal memorial service was held at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, at which King, flanked by ministers of all faiths, gave a rousing eulogy entitled, “A Witness to the Truth.” Elsewhere, an estimated 30,000 gathered for a service in his memory in Boston, and memorials and marches also were held in Washington, D.C., Northfield, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and on the campus at Princeton University, where Reeb had graduated from theological seminary in 1953.

President Johnson, like many other U.S. citizens, was deeply moved at the martyrdom of a white man in the cause of African American civil rights. Coupled with the events of Bloody Sunday, Reeb’s death galvanized the president and the U.S. Congress. President Johnson addressed Congress and the nation on March 15, urging passage of the Voting Rights Act and famously uttering the phrase, “We shall overcome.” Congress passed the legislation and Johnson signed it into law in August of that year.

In the wake of the attack on James Reeb, four Selma men were arrested and charged with murder. However, they were immediately released on bond. A few months after Reeb’s death, an all-white, all-male jury in Dallas County acquitted Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle, and O’Neal Hoggle of all charges, whereas the fourth individual left Alabama for Mississippi and the judge declared he did not have to stand trial.

Reeb was cremated and his ashes scattered in Wyoming. The James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, was named in his honor in 1993.

I’d like to end this service with The Reverend Doctor King’s eulogy of James Reeb, “A Witness to the Truth”:

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 from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb.

He entered the stage of history just 38 years ago, and in the brief years that he was privileged to act on this mortal stage, he played his part exceedingly well.

James Reeb was martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers. His death was a result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.

The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he 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.

James Reeb could not be accused of being only concerned about justice for Negroes away from home. He and his family live in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a predominantly Negro community. [They] devoted their lives to aiding families in low-income housing areas.

Again, we must ask the question: Why must good men die for doing good? “O Jerusalem, why did you murder the prophets and persecute those who come to preach your salvation?” So the Reverend James Reeb has something to say to all of us in his death.

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, that I asked a few days ago as we funeralized James Jackson. 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 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 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 South Vietnam, yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights.

Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.

So 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….

One day the history of this great period of social change will be written in all of its completeness. On that bright day our nation will recognize its real heroes.

They will be thousands of dedicated men and women with a noble sense of purpose that enables them to face fury and hostile mobs with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneers.

They will be faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, who have temporarily left behind the towers of learning to storm the barricades of violence.

They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a 72-year-old Negro woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity, and with the people decided not to ride the segregated buses; who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” They will be ministers of the gospel, priests, rabbis, and nuns, who are willing to march for freedom, to go to jail for conscience’s sake.

One day the South will know from these dedicated children of God courageously protesting segregation, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream, standing up with the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

When this glorious story is written, the name of James Reeb will stand as a shining example of manhood at its best.

So I can say to you this afternoon, my friends, that in spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period, something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away.

Out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened. Those at the bottom of society, shirtless and barefoot people of the land, are developing a new sense of somebody-ness, carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. “People who stand in darkness have seen a great light.” Here and there an individual or group dares to love and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.

Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted, the easygoing optimism of yesteryear is impossible. Granted, that those who pioneered in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden; the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life.

Granted, that we face a world crisis, which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless seas. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world.

The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

I say, in conclusion, the greatest tribute that we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish because his life–like the Schubert “Unfinished Symphony”–was cut off at an early age. We have the challenge and charge to continue.

We must work right here in Alabama, and all over the United States, till men everywhere will respect the dignity and worth of human personalities. We must work with all our hearts to establish a society where men will be-that “out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.”

We must work with determination for that great day. “Justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We must work right here, where “every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” We must work to make the Declaration of Independence real in our everyday lives.

If we will do this, we will be able–right here in Alabama, right here in the deep South, right here in the United States–to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

We will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children–as expressed so beautifully in this marvelous ecumenical service–all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands in unity and brotherhood to bring about the bright day of the brotherhood of man under the guidance of the fatherhood of God.

So we thank God for the life of James Reeb. We thank God for his goodness. We thank God that he was willing to lay down his life in order to redeem the soul of our nation.

So I say–so Horatio said as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet–“Good night sweet prince: may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”

I open the floor now for any comments or responses.