Jeremiah Reeves

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Jeremiah Reeves (born 1935-died March 28, 1958) was a 22-year-old African American, a former jazz drummer, who was executed by the state of Alabama by electrocution after being convicted of raping a white woman in 1952. At the time of the events, Reeves was 16 years old, working as a grocery delivery boy; at his trial, he denied having had sex with the white woman. His sentence and execution were considered unjust, outsize for the crime, and a large protest had formed by the time he was executed, after appeals.


Jeremiah Reeves was a 16-year-old respected senior in the segregated high school, a talented jazz drummer in a band. He was also working as a grocery delivery boy in Montgomery, Alabama when he was indicted in 1952 for the rape of a white woman.[1][2] He was indicted, then quickly convicted at a two-day trial by an all-white jury that deliberated less than a half hour; the judge imposed a death sentence. Members of the African-American community were outraged at the sentence, as they knew that not only were white men seldom prosecuted for rape of black women, but they never received the death sentence for such crimes.

According to the memoir by Rev. Martin Luther King, he spent much time on the Reeves case. Blacks were outraged by the injustice of the sentence in the case. Reeves retracted his confession, which was derived under duress. He denied for the rest of his life having had any relations with the white woman.[2]

Reeves' legal appeal of his conviction and death sentence by an Alabama State Criminal Court reached the Federal Circuit Court. One of the grounds by the defense was that the jury excluded blacks. His case twice reached the United States Supreme Court. As King wrote in his memoir,

"The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to the state supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute." The governor failed to commute his sentence.[2]

Claudette Colvin was a younger classmate of Reeves and among those very upset about his case during the years that appeals were underway. On March 2, 1955, she defied Montgomery's bus segregation rules, which required blacks to give up seats to whites in the middle of the bus once the first rows were filled.[1] Her action took place 9 months before Rosa Parks exercised her right of refusal and became the point person on a civil rights challenge case in which blacks conduced a more than yearlong Montgomery bus boycott to protest the segregated system. Colvin was one of four women named in the case ultimately taken to the courts, which achieved the end of bus segregation on city buses.[3]

Reeves had claimed during his trial and appeals that he was forced to sit in the Alabama electric chair, known as Yellow Mama, for a night until he confessed to the crime. The State held Reeves on death row after his conviction until after he reached the age of 21, considered the minimum age for execution. He was put to death on March 28, 1958 in the same chair used to extract his confession years before. Considered a victim of racism and injustice, Reeves attracted sympathy from his arrest.

The NAACP provided funds to pay for his defense in an effort to protect the youth. Protests had arisen about his sentence, and followed his execution. Days after his execution, on Easter morning leaders of the national protest, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a prayer pilgrimage to the grounds of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.[2][4]

On that occasion, King said,

"It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice. …

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.[4]


  1. ^ a b Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Google eBook), New York: Macmillan, 2009, p. 23
  2. ^ a b c d "1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Boycott Inspiration", Blog:, 28 March 2014, accessed 30 July 2014
  3. ^ Younge, Gary (15 Dec 2000). "She would not be moved.". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 Mar 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Statement delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves