James Reeb

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James Reeb
James Reeb.jpg
Born (1927-01-01)January 1, 1927
Wichita, Kansas, U.S.
Died March 11, 1965(1965-03-11) (aged 38)
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater St. Olaf College
Princeton Theological Seminary
Occupation Unitarian Universalist minister
Known for Civil rights activist
Spouse(s) Marie Deason
Children 4

James Reeb (January 1, 1927 – March 11, 1965) was an American Unitarian Universalist minister and a pastor and civil rights activist in Washington, D.C. While participating in the Selma Voting Rights Movement actions in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, he was beaten severely by white segregationists and died of head injuries two days later in the hospital. He was 38.

Life and career[edit]

Reeb was born on January 1, 1927 in Wichita, Kansas, to Mae (Fox) and Harry Reeb.[1][2] He was raised in Kansas and Casper, Wyoming.[3] He graduated from St. Olaf College and attended Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey [4] and ordained a Presbyterian minister after graduation.[5]

As a scholar of theology, Reeb grew away from traditionalist Presbyterian teachings and was drawn to the Unitarian Universalist church.[5] Reeb appreciated the church's emphasis on social action,[6] and he became active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.[citation needed]

Beginning in his new ministry, Reeb encouraged parishioners to participate in the movement as well. With his wife and four children, he lived in poor black neighborhoods where he felt he could do the most good.[citation needed] After three years of active service at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., Reeb was fully ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1962.[7] In 1964, he began as community relations director for the American Friends Service Committee's Boston Metropolitan Housing Program, focusing on desegregation.[8]

Reeb married Marie Deason on August 20, 1950; they had four children.[1]


A member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Reeb went to Selma to join protests for African American voting rights following the attack by state troopers and sheriff's deputies on nonviolent demonstrators on March 7, 1965. After eating dinner at an integrated restaurant on March 9, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers, Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller,[9] white men beat them with clubs for their support of African American rights.[citation needed] Several hours elapsed before Reeb was admitted to a Birmingham hospital where doctors performed brain surgery. While Reeb was on his way to the hospital in Birmingham, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a press conference lamenting the ‘‘cowardly’’ attack and asking all to pray for his protection.[citation needed] Reeb died two days later.[3] His death resulted in a national outcry against the activities of white racists in the Deep South.[4]

Reeb’s death provoked mourning throughout the country, and tens of thousands held vigils in his honor.[citation needed] President Lyndon B. Johnson called Reeb’s widow and father to express his condolences, and on 15 March invoked Reeb’s memory when he delivered a draft of the Voting Rights Act to Congress.[citation needed] The same day, King eulogized Reeb at a ceremony at Brown’s Chapel in Selma: "James Reeb 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."[3]

In April 1965, three men were indicted for Reeb’s murder; they were acquitted that December.[citation needed] The Voting Rights Act was passed on August 6, 1965.[3]

In July 2007, the Boston Globe reported that the FBI's Cold Case Initiative had reopened the investigation into the 46-year-old case.[6] The renewed investigation was also reported by The Anniston Star and The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., in conjunction with the Civil Rights Cold Case Project.[citation needed]

Reeb is portrayed by Jeremy Strong in the 2014 film Selma.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Anderson, Laura. "James Reeb". March 16, 2009. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  2. ^ Howlett, Duncan (1993). No Greater Love: the James Reeb story. Boston: Skinner House. pp. 2–3. ISBN 1-55896-317-0. Retrieved 15 September 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Reeb, James (1927-1965)". The King Papers Project. 
  4. ^ a b "On This Day: Mass Moments". Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. 2011. Retrieved 15 September 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Howlett, pp. 81ff.
  6. ^ a b Helman, Scott (17 July 2011). "Letter from Selma". The Boston Globe Magazine (Globe Newspaper Co.): 14–21. Retrieved 15 September 2011. 
  7. ^ Howlett, p. 131.
  8. ^ Jack, Homer and John Sullivan. "James Reeb: Civil Rights Martyr and AFSC memorial statement on James Reeb". www.afsc.org. Friends Journal and AFSC. Retrieved 31 December 2014. 
  9. ^ http://archive.uua.org/news/reeb/nyt030800.html

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