Cold Case: The Murder of Rev. James Reeb
Three white men were tried and acquitted of the 1965 murder of white Unitarian minister, the Rev. James Reeb in Selma, Alabama. In 2019, a National Public Radio podcast delves into truth and memory. Listen to "White Lies."
In February of 1965, the United States was at another turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, but critical rights were still not legally secured for African Americans. Black men and women routinely faced physical violence, biased "literacy tests," and other obstacles when they attempted to register to vote.
In Selma, Alabama, African Americans' attempts to register had been met with an injunction by local judges forbidding groups of two or more to talk about civil rights. Organizers with the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC), led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and including James Bevel, had begun to work on voter registration campaigns and protests in response.
On February 18th, during a protest in nearby Marion, 26-year-old Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by police as he tried to protect his grandfather from their beating. Eight days later, Jackson died from those wounds. Surrounding communities erupted in grief and anger, and James Bevel called for a march to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to protest police violence and demand voting rights from Governor George Wallace.
More than 500 people showed up to march the 54 miles to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. As they approached the Edmund Pettis Bridge, just outside Selma, state troopers arrived on the order of Gov. Wallace and told marchers to turn back. When marchers refused, the troopers attacked with nightsticks and tear gas, while mounted divisions charged into the crowd on horseback. Televised images of the encounter shocked the nation. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, and that day became known as "Bloody Sunday."
Dr. King immediately called for a second march, issuing a call to clergy and others around the country to participate. One who responded was Unitarian Universalist Rev. James Reeb. Another religious leader who answered the call was the Conservative Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had escaped the Holocaust just before World War II and was a long time ally of the Civil Rights Movement.
On March 9, 2,500 people were present to repeat the march—but again, they only reached the Edmund Pettis Bridge. A judge had temporarily forbidden marching until the state troopers' role could be examined in court and SCLC organizers decided to temporarily obey. The marchers returned to Selma to prepare for a third attempt.
That night, Rev. Reeb and Unitarian Universalist ministers Clark Olson and Orloff Miller had dinner at an integrated restaurant (one that welcomed blacks and whites). As they were leaving, they were easily identified as outsiders, and therefore Civil Rights marchers, by some angry local men, who attacked the ministers with clubs. Rev. James Reeb's skull was cracked, and he died.
The death of a white man brought a level of national outrage among other whites that Jimmy Lee Jackson's death had not inspired. Protests were held around the country. In response to the death, the march, and years of pressure, President Lyndon Baines Johnson introduced a Voting Rights Act to Congress on March 15, 1965.
The march, however, was still left to be completed. On March 21, tens of thousands set forth from Selma for a five-day, four-night trek to the state capital. Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King led the march, linked arm-in-arm; Heschel would later say that when they walked, it was as if his "legs were praying." When the highway became thinner, some marchers walked through while others were transported by volunteer drivers, including Unitarian Universalist Viola Liuzzo.
Liuzzo was a white woman, a mother of five, a new member of the Unitarian Universalist movement, and a resident of Detroit. She was also someone who believed that the racism in the United States was unacceptable, and when she heard the call for volunteers, she went. The night of that final march, Viola was driving an African American activist to Montgomery when a car full of Ku Klux Klan members started following them and shouting threats. (The Ku Klux Klan or KKK is America's most infamous hate group. Still existing today, the KKK targets blacks, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and others.) She sang freedom songs in response. Miles later, on a lonely stretch of road, the KKK members pulled up and shot Viola through the window, killing her.
Viola's death brought a fresh wave of outrage. National response grew, as television broadcasts showed the marchers' determination and the power of Dr. King's speech when the marchers arrived in Montgomery. Just months later, on August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed into law. The Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, and others who worked together to march from Selma to Montgomery had changed our country forever.