James Reeb, 1927-1965
Halfway through college, I got married. Len and I would have been quite happy with a civil ceremony and raucous party, but Maryland law required the blessing of clergy. So, we found a Unitarian minister who agreed to do a small, very informal wedding in July, 1963. I was 19, he was 20. We assumed we would be together forever but it didn't turn out that way, as some of you already know.

We got off to a bad start. Our first six months together were hardly a honeymoon. We rented a small furnished basement in a poor neighborhood, and lived from hand to mouth by waiting tables, sorting mail, taking classified ads and washing cars. Even worse, we found ourselves under an avalanche of misery after being blindsided in a 7-car pile-up on a highway near Baltimore. Both injured and uninsured, we lost our jobs, our driver’s licenses and, tragically, our only valuable possession, a “new” 10-year-old Chevy. It had cost us the equivalent of a month’s rent. I was still trying to finish school, so this was a major setback.

Overwhelmed by the situation, my young husband fell into a deep depression and probably suffered a nervous breakdown. He was immobilized, sleepless and hallucinating. Worst of all, he made a half-serious attempt at suicide. 

Looking back, I see how foolish I was to not contact our parents but, at the time, didn't think it was a good idea. None of them had forgiven us for marrying one another, especially while we were so young. They knew about our accident but didn't offer any help, and made it clear we were completely on our own. Instead, I sought help from the kind man who married us, and he referred me to a minister at All Souls Church, just a few blocks from our apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC. 

Jim Reeb was a godsend. As assistant minister of a large, inner-city church, he served as chief social worker for an active neighborhood outreach program. Several times a week, I went to his office for counseling on how to help Len through his breakdown. As things improved at home, he gave advice on how we could get out of the pit we had dug for ourselves. 

Jim Reeb never pretended to be a therapist but knew a lot. And, it didn't hurt that he had God on his side! I felt at the time -- and still believe -- that without his help, Len would have succeed in doing away with himself. Terrified of being locked up, he refused help for himself, but didn't stand in my way when I said I needed to see Rev. Reeb for my own spiritual needs. It was silly, he said, but he put up with it.  

Not only did Jim Reeb step in and support me emotionally, but he suggested I use one of the church’s many pianos for music lessons. He knew a few parishioners who might be interested in piano lessons. Hmmm. I loved that idea!

Until my teaching business got off the ground, Jim gave us one month’s rent and enough money to buy a few groceries. I think that came to about $65. As he predicted, three or four students signed up the first week and, before I knew it, I had almost more work than I could handle. 

Those piano lessons brought in enough money to pay our basic bills, and even bus fare to school, once in a while. When it didn't, I collected bottles for refunds. In a few months, Len improved enough that he wanted to go back out into the world, and maybe even work. (Obviously, he wasn’t fine, but I didn’t know much about mental illness at the time.)  

Once Len was ready, Jim got him an interview for a sales job at a stationery store on 14th Street, about three blocks from home. Jim also gave him a tweed wool jacket for the interview and a few dollars for a haircut. 

Without Jim Reeb’s help, I don’t know what would have happened to us, but it could have been catastrophic. Later that year (1964), as were getting on our feet, Jim Reeb moved his wife and four young children to Boston so he could take a job with the American Friends Service Committee. I sent him a note through All Souls, thanking him for saving at least one of our lives. 

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Jim Reeb answered the telegram Martin Luther King sent to clergy across the country asking them to join him in Selma, Alabama, and march with him to the state capital. Several hundred protesters had already run into intensive police resistance trying to reach Montgomery that weekend, and had been ordered to stop at the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma.

According to one account, “When ordered to end the march by state troopers, the marchers were given three minutes, but within one and half minutes they were attacked by dogs, beaten with Billy clubs, tear gas, and chased by posses.”  (http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0214523/selmamarch.htm#second.)

Jim and two colleagues flew south the next day and, at the end of their first full day in Selma, they were beaten by a group of white men with clubs and pipes. For some reason, Jim didn't reach a hospital for several hours. He died there from his injuries three days later. He was 38.

To read a portion of the eulogy Martin Luther King gave at Jim Reeb’s memorial service, click Read More. 

… [On Tuesday, March 9, after that day’s leg of the march] Reeb and two friends got some dinner in a local restaurant -- not one of the "whites only" restaurants, but one run by local black citizens. When they had eaten and left, they were walking to the church where marchers were meeting again to plan for the next day. James Reeb never made it to that meeting. Four white men attacked him on the street. His two friends recovered from being kicked and beaten, but James was struck from behind by a heavy piece of wood. It crushed the left side of his head.

At his memorial service, held in Selma on the day that President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King concluded his eulogy with these remarks:

Naturally, we are compelled to ask the question, Who killed James Reeb? The answer is simple and rather limited when we think of the who. He was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder. There is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask this afternoon. It is the question, 'What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and responsibility grows…

James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He 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.

From http://www.stolaf.edu/news/speeches/benson.html

For some recollections of Reeb’s two daughters, see




Jan Busco
04/01/2011 11:31

I've just found your blog and link to the video. We are in Flagstaff, AZ where it is a beautiful spring day, and we will share the You Tube video and this blog with our friends born or raised after 1960.

04/06/2011 18:32

Jan, are you a garden writer? If so, be sure to check out CommonWeeder's blog for a look at gardens in this neck of the woods. Pat has a terrific site. You might even know her.


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