At Philadelphia General Hospital, where Rev. James Reeb worked in 1956 as a chaplain, the strict Presbyterian minister suffered a crisis of faith while tending to drug addicts and the city’s poor.
“His theology had told him that if people were suffering, that it was God’s punishment for their sins,” said Rev. Rob Hardies, the pastor at All Souls Church Unitarian in Northwest Washington, D.C. at a special service held in Reeb’s memory earlier this month. “But this judging voice was at war with another voice inside him that told him ‘These are your brothers and sisters.'”
Reeb was an associate minister at the Unitarian Universalist church from 1959 until 1964 before joining a Quaker non-profit in Boston to work on housing issues. He died 50 years ago today, after a vicious beating by white segregationists in Alabama.
In 1965, Reeb answered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to join civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala. The second march, called “Turnaround Tuesday,” had concluded on March 9 of that year when Dr. King led the marchers onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and said a short prayer before turning around. He asked the clergy to remain in Selma in case another march occurred.
Later that evening, after sharing dinner with two other ministers, Reeb was brutally attacked by a group of white men.
“Four men came at us from across the street,” recalled the Rev. Clark Olsen, now 81 and living in Asheville, N.C. told Religion News Service. “One of them was carrying a club and swung it at Jim’s head.”
Reeb, a 38-year-old father of four, fell into a coma and died two days later as a result of his injuries. The three men charged in the assault were acquitted by an all-white jury after just 95 minutes of deliberation.
“He felt it was appropriate to live among the people he was working with,” Olsen said. “He was just a very committed person this way and wanted to do good in the world and right some of the wrongs in our society.”
King preached Reeb’s eulogy, and hours later, President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned Reeb’s death and the violence of Selma when he addressed Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act: “Many were brutally assaulted; one good man, a man of God, was killed.”
Fifty years later, Hardies remembered a man whose legacy is still tied closely to the church, whose progressive roots date back to its founding in 1821, when it was known for its opposition to slavery.
“When did he first give his life over to the cause of freedom?” Hardies asked his congregation. “Jim started marching long before Selma. Maybe Reeb’s march to Selma began in that Philadelphia hospital.”
Adelle M. Banks, a national correspondent for Religion News Service, contributed to this report.