James Reeb's calling emerged slowly, but steadily. He had grown up in Casper, Wyoming, where he met and married his wife Marie. A devout and conservative Christian, after college James began preparation for the Presbyterian ministry. While in seminary, he began to question his faith. In 1957, a few months after reading a book by Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, he converted to Unitarianism. He became a Unitarian minister and was called 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 four children, moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts and began working to better living conditions 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—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 moving in the civil rights movement in the state of Alabama.
Alabama's Jim Crow laws, like these enacted throughout the South, codified a "separate but equal" system that was anything but equal. The right to vote, a fundamental right of citizenship in a democratic society, was routinely denied African Americans. The system of discrimination and oppression ruled nearly every aspect of life, reinforced by violence not only by lawless citizens, but also by elected officials, police, and others charged with enforcing the law. Beatings, destructive vandalism, and even murder awaited anyone who did anything to challenge the system. On February 26, an Alabama state trooper killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black Civil Rights worker, setting off the chain of events that would bring James Reeb 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.
Six hundred 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 now known as Bloody Sunday. On the outskirts of Selma, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, marchers encountered a line of police, three deep, 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—to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where James and Marie Reeb watched.
And then came the Call to Selma. Now Dr. King called on people of faith—people of all faiths, ministers and others—from across the country to come to Selma and march with him to Montgomery. All over the United States, Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay leaders alike wrestled with the call to come to Selma. 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. He decided he had to help; it was crucial for people of faith to bear witness to what was happening in Alabama. He bade his family good-bye and boarded a plane, joining about 100 ministers from the Boston area.
James Reeb was with thousands who gathered on Tuesday to march but were, again, turned back at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. 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 intergrated 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, side by side, to the chapel where Dr. King was to speak. James Reeb walked on the outside, nearest the street. They had not gone far when four or five white men came at them from across the street. Frightened, the three walked faster. They realized one of the men had a stick. When the attackers reached the three ministers, one swung his heavy stick and smashed the side of James Reeb's head. Miller and Olsen were beaten and kicked on the sidewalk. When the attack was over, it was clear that Reeb was seriously hurt.
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 dropped away and refused to accompany them once the ambulance reached the city limits. Just outside the city, the ambulance got a flat tire. 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 with the flat tire flopping. Finding a place to make a phone call and find another ambulance was difficult; 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. They transferred the very ill James Reeb and set out again for Birmingham, this time reaching the hospital where Reeb immediately began surgery.
News traveled quickly that James Reeb 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 Unitarian Universalist 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.
On March 11, two 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 delivered the eulogy at Reeb's funeral, saying:
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 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.