James Reeb of Casper, Martyr to Civil Rights
For those who attended high school in Casper, Wyo., in the early 1940s, the tragedies of the civil rights struggle in the American South came home in a personal way in March 1965. Their classmate, James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister, was murdered in Selma, Ala., where he had traveled to support civil rights campaigns led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.
Reeb’s death occurred just a few days after the violent “Bloody Sunday” confrontation, when Alabama state troopers attack on 600 marchers attempting to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, was broadcast on television newscasts nationwide. The following Tuesday, Reeb was on hand for a second march. That evening outside a restaurant he was severely beaten, and died two days later. The better-known, Selma-to-Montgomery march, when 30,000 people marched 54 miles to the state capital, came two weeks later still.
All these events, Reeb’s death prominent among them, prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to urge Congress to enact legislation to guarantee voting rights to all Americans without further delay. Though the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, that law did not contain a voting rights provision. The Voting Rights Act passed in August 1965.
Life in Casper
Reeb was born on New Year’s Day, 1927, in Wichita, Kan., to Harry and Mae Reeb. (At that time, the family name was Rape, an Anglicized form of the original name Reeb. In October 1949, James obtained a court order changing his name to Reeb and his father followed suit soon after).
As a youngster, Reeb endured rheumatic fever, influenza and whooping cough. To help him regain his strength, his mother moved with him to New Mexico, and she and a friend tutored him so he could keep up with his studies. Reeb’s father, meanwhile, had been laid off from his Russell, Kan., job and was hired by Western Oil & Tool Manufacturing Co. in Casper, Wyo. James entered Natrona County High School in September 1942 as a sophomore.
Not long after graduation in June 1945, Reeb accepted induction into the U.S. Army. He served in California and then Anchorage, Alaska, prior to his December 1946 discharge. He used funds from the GI Bill to attend Casper College as one of its first students. At that time, the college was located on the third floor of the high school. Reeb meet Natrona County High School senior Marie Deason, who would eventually become his wife.
Reeb had always been deeply religious and was active in the Presbyterian Church. With the help of a Lutheran minister from Casper, he was admitted to St. Olaf College, a Lutheran institution in Minnesota. He devoted himself to his studies there and also attended both sessions of summer school at the University of Wyoming in 1949. He graduated cum laude from St. Olaf after only two and a half years.
He married Marie in August 1950 in Casper. Reeb then entered Princeton Theological Seminary. While studying there, he participated in a hospital chaplaincy program at Philadelphia General Hospital in Pennsylvania. Reeb maintained ties to Wyoming, however. In 1953, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in Casper.
The family's vacations from his position in Philadelphia usually involved driving back to Wyoming, where Jim became interested in looking for fossils and human artifacts in central Wyoming. At the same time, his connection to his traditional Christian faith was weakening as he came to believe that working to improve social conditions directly was more important than prayer.
A Unitarian ministry
Reeb soon decided he had “become much more of a humanist than a deist or theist” and applied to become a minister in the Unitarian Church in March 1957. In the midst of that lengthy process, he accepted a position as youth director for the west branch of the Philadelphia YMCA.
Reeb became like a father to a number of the boys at the Y and established a pre-delinquency program to reach boys headed for trouble. When some were calling for the death penalty for a group of black boys charged with killing a Korean student, Reeb circulated a statement reminding people that everyone shared some responsibility because of prejudice, which forced these young men to live in deteriorating, overcrowded sections of the city.
He continued to seek a position as a Unitarian minister and finally succeeded in March 1959, when some Unitarian ministers from Philadelphia met with the Rev. Duncan Howlett at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. When Howlett mentioned he was having trouble finding an assistant minister, they recommended Reeb.
Reeb spent five years at the church. In his final sermon at All Souls in July 1964, he spoke at length about the racial unrest in the South and about the long history of indignities toward African-Americans.
They have, he said, "a new sense of self-dignity out of which will be born a greater sense of taking responsibility for their own future, but out of which must also be born our sense of understanding of what it is that is involved. We must not misinterpret the situation. We must not let the backlash, as it were, increase because we continue to see that Negroes do what people call 'push.' ... It is up to us to contribute understanding, to try to interpret to the community as a whole what is happening, why things are as they are." Neither blacks nor whites, he said, "must permit [themselves] to be inhibited by the bigots or the racists lest we all go down the drain in a sea of hatred." He said no one could take a vacation from the struggle for justice.
To Boston with the Quakers
He soon began community development work in a slum area of the Boston suburb of Roxbury, a program sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee of the Quakers.
In August, he moved his wife and their four children—John, Karen, Anne and Steven, ages 13 to 4--to Boston. By the beginning of 1965, the AFSC project was well underway, and Reeb was working to improve conditions in the area. He lived in the ghetto and his children attended neighborhood schools.
After a tenement house fire in which four people died and 30 families were left homeless, Reeb’s AFSC project members began an investigation as to whether the building complied with legal requirements such as those for exits. Reeb visited a city fire official to discuss improving the codes, but met with a hostile and threatening response. He issued a report on the fire dated March 3, 1965.
On Sunday night, March 7, Reeb and his wife watched film clips of the “Bloody Sunday” attack on the Selma marchers on the 11 o'clock television news. Some 600 blacks and a few whites, led by John Lewis and other officials of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, started out of Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Organizers had intended to walk all the way to Montgomery, the state capitol 50 miles away. Gov. George Wallace had vowed that the march would not happen.
At the other end they were met by Alabama state troopers and a sheriff's posse, who knocked marchers to the ground, beat them with nightsticks and fired tear gas. The television newscast carried footage of severely injured marchers, bloodied and suffering from the gas. Sixty people were injured, some with broken bones and head wounds. Seventeen were hospitalized.
King and other organizers with the SCLC had come to Selma after various organizations over two years had made little progress in registering voters. Of the 15,000 blacks old enough to vote in Selma, only 130 were registered, and more than 80 percent lived in poverty. The previous month, a state trooper had shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson during a voting rights march in nearby Marion. This killing became another focus of the planned Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Gov. Wallace stated he had ordered state troopers to use "a minimum amount of force" to stop the march to keep marchers from getting hurt along the highway to Montgomery at the hands of "an element of people in Alabama which sometimes is uncontrollable."
As a result of the beatings, King and other leaders issued a call for clergy from across the country to join them in a second march to be held on Tuesday, March 9. About noon on Monday, Reeb received a call from the Unitarian Universalist Association informing him of the plea.
Later that day, Reeb told his wife that he wanted to join the people going to Selma. Marie soon realized that there was no use in trying to dissuade him. She drove him to the airport, where he met more than 100 Unitarian ministers and laypeople from the Boston area who had chartered a flight to Atlanta. Once there, they used cars provided by King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the 200-mile drive to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal in Selma. Reeb expected to be back at his desk on Wednesday.
Although a federal judge had issued an injunction against the march, King concluded by midday Tuesday that he could not call off the event after so many had responded to his call. Instead, he agreed to a compromise: The march would continue to the other side of the Pettus Bridge and would then turn around.
The march began at 3 p.m. with King in front, but only the top leaders knew of the agreement. They were stopped at the other end of the bridge once again, but granted permission for participants to pray. Then, although the police forces moved aside, King held to the compromise, turned around and led the marchers back into Selma, where they had further meetings at Brown Chapel.
King urged those at the church to remain until Thursday, when he expected the same federal judge to issue another injunction to allow the march. Reeb decided he would stay overnight.
Reeb’s former superior at All Souls Unitarian Church, Duncan Howlett, who became the minister’s biographer, explained the subsequent events in his book, No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story. Reeb had eaten little in the previous 24 hours and joined two other colleagues in a walk to the local headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—King’s organization—to ask where they might get dinner. They preferred an integrated restaurant and were directed to Walker's Cafe around the corner.
Reeb called his wife to tell her he would not be home that night. After eating, the three started walking back to the church. They had gone only a few steps when four whites on the other side of the street, who saw them coming out of the restaurant, ran toward them shouting racial slurs.
The Rev. Clark Olsen, a Berkeley, Calif., minister, looked around just in time to see one of the thugs hit Reeb from behind with a pipe or club. Reeb fell to the pavement. The Rev. Orloff Miller followed civil rights protocol by dropping to the sidewalk and protecting his head with his hands. The attackers began kicking and pummeling him as well. Olsen was also attacked by one of the four, who pounded him with fists and broke his glasses.
Then the attackers ran off. Reeb was conscious, but dazed, without apparent injury otherwise. He was not coherent. His fellow ministers got him to his feet and helped bring a staggering Reeb back to SCLC headquarters to get help. A hearse from a black funeral home next door was brought over, and a black infirmary was called and informed. At the infirmary, the physician noted that Reeb's eyes were glazing over. He directed them to take Reeb to Birmingham—90 miles away—where a neurosurgeon might be found.
First they had to talk to the police and arrange for a deposit check required by the hospital. A police car escorted the hearse carrying the three white ministers and the black doctor, driver and attendant, to the edge of town. On the highway a short time later they had a flat tire.
Because it was dangerous for a biracial group to be seen together at night, they didn’t repair the flat, but drove back to Selma and called for a second vehicle. They finally got Reeb to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham by 11 p.m. Surgery began within 30 minutes. Doctors found in their initial examination that Reeb’s skull had been crushed on the left side and a large blood clot had developed. They held out little hope.
Unitarian officials had informed Marie by phone that night, and shortly afterward, news of her husband’s injury was on the national TV news. Plans were made for Marie to meet Reeb's father in Birmingham and for both of their mothers to fly from Casper to Boston to care for the children. Duncan Howlett also headed for Birmingham and joined Marie on the flight from Atlanta. The doctors knew, after the surgery, that Reeb would not be able to recover.
The next day, the name of James Reeb was on the front page of every newspaper and at the top of every newscast.
At 7 p.m. on Thursday night, March 11, Jim's heart stopped. No efforts were made to restart it. In accordance with his wishes expressed a few years earlier in a letter to Marie, Reeb was cremated. He wanted his ashes to be scattered in wide-open, sagebrush covered Shirley Basin, south of Casper, Wyo.
Shortly after Reeb died, President Lyndon Johnson called Marie and expressed his condolences to her and then to James’ father. The president arranged for a plane to take them to Boston and then to Wyoming when they were ready to go.
"With the announcement of Jim Reeb's death," Howlett later wrote in his book, "a cry of rage rose from all over the nation and echoed around the world." Several thousand clergy of all denominations traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in a protest meeting. Their representatives met with President Johnson and asked that the U.S. Army be sent to Selma to protect the marchers.
On the day after the attack on Reeb, hundreds of marchers were stopped by police in Selma as they moved toward the county courthouse. After his death, they kept vigil day and night at the “Selma Wall”, a police cordon, until a compromise was reached to allow the Reeb memorial march on March 15, the following Monday.
On that day, King led more than 3,500 people through the streets of Selma and then he laid a wreath at the courthouse door and prayed for Reeb. King's aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, said the spirit of Reeb "will dwell at the Dallas County Courthouse until every Negro is free to vote."
King gave a eulogy for Reeb in Selma, saying, in part, “James Reeb 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.” King continued, “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.”
Legislation, more memorials and an acquittal
In Washington that same day, President Johnson urged lawmakers at a joint session of Congress to move quickly to enact legislation guaranteeing voting rights to all Americans, and particularly to African-Americans who had been excluded from registering to vote in the South by the imposition of barriers such as literacy tests.
Thousands poured into the District of Columbia for a second Reeb memorial service. Similar services were held across America. In Worcester, Mass., the official Roman Catholic diocese newspaper proposed sainthood for Reeb.
The cover of Life Magazine on March 26, 1965, shows Martin Luther King and associates at the Brown Chapel above a caption saying King "holds a wreath to the martyred Reverend James Reeb." The article inside says President Johnson and his top aides were discussing Vietnam at Camp David when word came that Rev. Reeb would not likely survive the attack. Johnson reportedly said, "How many Jim Reebs is it going to take before those people understand the intensity of this movement?"
A studio photo of Reeb sporting a bow tie was printed in Time Magazine's March 19th issue. The article incorrectly said Reeb was born in Casper, Wyoming. "He had a great love for people and their needs," colleague Rev. William A. Wendt was quoted as saying. "He could not have cared less about whether they were going to heaven. He cared where they were going now." One of the attackers, the article added, had 17 previous arrests for assault.
More than $100,000 from sources nationwide was raised in short order to provide for Reeb's family. Much more was raised for the civil rights movement, including $100,000 from a single show, Broadway Answers Selma put on by some of the country's best known entertainers. An editorial cartoon by nationally syndicated Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block appeared in newspapers in mid-March. Entitled A.D. 1965, it depicted a new grave and a tombstone bearing the inscription, "James J. Reeb – Selma, Alabama," with a wreath of thorns leaning against it.
An overflow crowd attended Sunday services at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, D.C. Many marched to Lafayette Park where 15,000 gathered to pay respects to Reeb.
That week, after a memorial service at Arlington Street Church in Boston—the Reeb family's church—Marie Reeb and her four children were flown to Casper for another memorial service. Mourners marched from the center of town to the high school, where three of Reeb’s classmates—Dr. Joseph Murphy, attorney Frank Bowron and Mayor Patrick Meenan—spoke. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also attended the service.
On March 25, about 30,000 people completed the march from Selma to Montgomery under the protection of federalized Alabama National Guard troops. Participants stood on the steps of a state capitol, which was crowned by a Confederate flag, according to Howlett's biography of Reeb. “Beneath it was the state flag of Alabama. A diminutive stars and stripes fluttered from a little pole set in the lawn far below.”
Later on March 25 near Selma, a young white mother of five children and Unitarian named Viola Gregg Liuzzo, from Detroit, was returning to Montgomery after dark with a young black man in the car. Both were part of a team of SCLC volunteers shuttling marchers back to Selma. A sniper shot Liuzzo dead on Route 80, the same route the marchers had taken. The young man, Leroy Moton, covered with her blood, survived the event by pretending to be dead when the shooters returned.
In Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1965, Rep. Teno Roncalio, D-Wyo., said House passage of the voting rights bill was "a monument to the dedication of the late Rev. James J. Reeb of Casper." He said Reeb had died while protesting the denial to others of their voting privileges. The act was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965, only five months after Reeb's death.
On Dec. 10, 1965, an all-white all-male jury took only 90 minutes to find three Selma men not guilty of the murder of James Reeb, even though at the trial both Rev. Olsen and Rev. Miller identified defendant Elmer L. Cook as one of the assailants. All 13 black potential jurors were struck from the panel, but one of the jurors allowed to serve was the brother of a key defense witness. The defense attorney told the jury that Reeb's own friends delayed treatment and let him die because the civil rights movement needed a martyr, according to a UPI report from Selma.
Namon Hoggle, the last of the three suspects charged with Reeb's murder, died at the age of 81 on Aug. 30, 2016. As recently as 2011, Reeb's murder was investigated by federal authorities but no other charges were ever brought after the original acquittal.
At some point not long after Reeb's murder, meanwhile, a James Reeb Memorial Park was dedicated at Winter Memorial Presbyterian Church in north Casper.
Today, Reeb's widow and some of his children and a granddaughter still live in Casper. Two of his granddaughters have traveled to Selma to visit the scene of their grandfather's beating, and one of them, Leah Reeb, has spoken at a Casper NAACP meeting.
James Reeb was also included as one of the characters in the film, Selma, produced by Paramount Pictures and released nationally in early 2015. Leah Reeb introduced a special showing of the film at the Iris Theatre in Casper on Jan. 9., 2015.
In August 2019 the Unitarian Universalist Community of Casper unveiled a new mural memorializing Reeb, Orloff, Olsen, activist Annie Lee Cooper—jailed in 1965 after a public argument with Sheriff Jim Clark while she was attempting to register to vote—and slain activists Jackson and King. The mural, by artist Tony Elmore, includes an inscription that reads, “This mural was created to inspire empathy as the greatest human power, sparked by the legacy of our hometown everyday hero, Rev. James Reeb, (1927—1965).”
- Delbridge, Rena. “Made in Wyoming – Rev. James Reeb.” Casper Star-Tribune, September 20, 2006. Accessed January 23, 2015 at http://www.madeinwyoming.net/profiles/reeb.php
- Hamilton, Mel. Casper schoolteacher and administrator. Phone interview with author, June 18, 2013.
- Howlett, Duncan. No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
- “LBJ Appeals 'Open Polls to All' – King Honors Slain Minister”. Billings Gazette. March 16, 1965, 1.
- Mendelsohn, Jack. The Martyrs. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
- Meyer, Brendan. “Casper Family Recalls James Reeb in Civil Rights Movement.” Associated Press report, The Washington Times. Accessed Jan. 19, 2015, at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/16/casper-family-recalls-james-reeb-in-civil-rights-m/?page=all .
- _____________. “Casper Family Remembers Minister Killed During Civil Rights Protests.” Casper Star-Tribune, Jan. 11, 2015. Accessed Jan. 19, 2015, at http://trib.com/news/local/casper/memories-of-selma-casper-family-remembers-minister-killed-during-civil/article_76bd9771-e644-50ab-9103-4feed401a7d2.html .
- Reeves, Jay. "Final suspect in 1965 civil rights slaying dies in Alabama." Associated Press, Sept. 1. 2016, accessed Sept. 5, 2016 at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/afd8cf4b1b04408495945791f2ed3b62/final-suspect-1965-civil-rights-slaying-dies-alabama.
- “Selma Allows Rites for Minister.” Associated Press report, Billings Gazette, March 15, 1965, 1.
- Stanton, Mary. From Selma to Sorrow. Univ. of Ga. Press 1998.
- White, Phil, Jr. Wyoming in Mid-Century: Prejudice, Protest and the "Black 14." Self-published 2019. Available on Amazon.com.
For further reading and research
- Interview with Rev. Orloff Miller, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 30, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. Accessed Jan. 26, 2015 at http://library.wustl.edu/units/spec/filmandmedia/collections/henry-hampton-collection/eyes1/miller_orloff.htm.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “How Long? Not Long.” King's famous speech, delivered March 25, 1965, twice mentions Reeb's death. Accessed Jan. 31, 2022 at https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/dr-martin-luther-king-jr-long-not-long-speech-text/.
- Viewers may see film footage from the 1965 Selma marches in this clip from a PBS American Experience documentary on Alabama Gov. George Wallace, narrated by Congressman John Lewis, who as a young man was at the head of the first march over the Pettus bridge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3SzokB4W9Y.
- The portrait of James Reeb is from Wikipedia. Used with thanks.
- The photo of the James Reeb memorial in Selma is from the National Geographic’s website. Used with thanks.
- The photo of the Reeb playground sign is by the author. Used with permission and thanks.
- The photo of artist Tony Elmore’s mural memorializing, left to right, James Reeb, Unitarian ministers Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen; civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper; civil rights martyrs Jimmie Lee Jackson and Martin Luther King is from the Unitarian Universalist Community of Casper. Used with thanks.
- The rest of the photos are from a large scrapbook of news clippings about James Reeb and the marches in Alabama in the Kathleen Hemry collection at the Casper College Western History Center. Used with permission and thanks.