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The Life and Legacy of James Reeb

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Never Forget Series (Profile 1)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

👆🏾 Audio for your listening pleasure 👆🏾

As the descendant of Anthony Lewis, my 5th great grandfather, and several generations of enslaved Nigerians who were brought to America, I understand the centuries-long struggle for Black Americans. During the Middle Passage (enslaved black bodies being brought to America as chattel slaves) roughly 20 million Africans were taken from their homes, captives of war, and many other reasons, nonetheless about half of those died on the journey due to many reasons, the living conditions being the main issue. (PBS, 2020). Many also died from being overworked and at the hands of slave masters during slavery. During Jim Crow, it is estimated that 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites were lynched from 1882-1968. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (2020), “many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the Black or being anti lynching...”

I understand and have and will continue to write about the fact that Blacks and Indigenous Peoples have faced more oppression in this country than any other peoples. Nonetheless, I also have to make space for white activists who sacrificed their life for my daughter, me, my mother, and all the people who look like me. Today, I highlight James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, MA who looked at the injustices occurring during his life and stated during his 1964 sermon, “American society is today indicted for what it is doing to the Negro [and] in that struggle, we should be prepared to make any sacrifice.” Little did he know that it would eventually cost him the ultimate sacrifice.

On March 7, 1965, while watching the evening news, Reeb saw armed local police and state troopers violently attack voting rights protestors who were peacefully marching from Selma to Montgomery, AL also known as Bloody Sunday. He heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s call to action where he asked any clergymen to make haste to Selma, AL. Reeb felt called to head down south to make a difference. Entering communities horizontally was nothing new to Reeb. In the city where he lived, Boston, MA, he worked with the NAACP to desegregate schools, he and his family lived in low-income Black neighborhoods, and he and his wife made sure that their children attended majority Black schools in those neighborhoods. Reeb was a long-time advocate for social justice.

Reeb made the decision to answer the call and head to Selma, AL. I can only imagine what thoughts he must have had when deciding to leave his wife and four children and head into a very dangerous situation. Once in Selma, Reed participated in what is now called Turnaround Tuesday where he and other voting rights protestors tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge only to be turned around by police officers. On the evening of March 9, 1965, Reeb and two of his fellow White clergymen protestors went to a local Black restaurant to eat dinner. After leaving the restaurant, they were confronted by 4 white men who stated, “Hey you niggers”. One of the men hit Reeb in the head with a club fracturing his skull. The other attackers kicked and pushed the other two clergymen and eventually ran off after they shouted, “Now you know what it is like to be a real nigger.” James Reeb died in the hospital two days later with his wife by his side. The 3 men who murdered Reeb were arrested, tried, and acquitted of all charges.

During Reeb’s Eulogy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated:

“the greatest tribute that we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish because his life like the Schubert “Unfinished Symphony” was cut off at an early age. We have the challenge and charge to continue…If we will do this, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” (King, 2015).

I’ve heard many White people in America today state, “why can’t Black people get over slavery that happened so long ago”. When James Reeb listened to Dr. King’s call to action, slavery had been over for 100 years, but that did not stop him as a White man in answering the call to assist Blacks who were still being denied the right to vote, denied fair housing, denied the right to receive an equitable education, denied the right to build wealth, and denied the right to just live their lives as human beings. I assume that because James Reeb spent his life intentionally living in Black communities and having authentic relationships with Black people, he must have understood and empathized with the real-life issues that Black people experienced on a day to day basis.

James Reeb also understood how people who looked like him continued to not only deny any accountability for what their ancestors had done to Blacks but also refused to see the laws, policies, and practices that continue to perpetuate the oppression of Blacks even in 1965. James Reeb answered the call to end the cycle of racism, poverty, and the denial of responsibility of a system built to keep groups of people down, which ultimately cost him his life. Today, answering the call only comes as a mere inconvenience in speaking up when you see injustice, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and working to have authentic relationships with people who have for so long been marginalized. Will you answer the call?



Jim Crow Museum (2013, February 14). The 1965 murder of James Reeb. [Video]. Youtube.

King Jr., M.L. (2015, March 11). Martin luther king jr.'s eulogy for the reverend james reeb. Beacon broadside: A project of beacon press.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (2020). History of lynchings.

PBS. (2020). The middle passage.

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