Reeb, James Joseph

James Joseph Reeb
James Joseph Reeb

James Joseph Reeb (January 1, 1927-March 11, 1965) was a minister, social worker, and civil rights activist. His brutal murder by segregationists while participating in the second Selma to Montgomery march made him one of the martyrs of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

He was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1927 to Mae Irene (Fox), a housewife, and Harry Daniel Rape who worked for the Bridgeport Machine Company. In 1949, Jim changed his name from Rape (an anglicized version of the German, Reb or Reeb) back to the ancestral Reeb. Jimmie Joe, as his parents fondly called their son, was a sickly baby. When he was eighteen months old, he started wearing glasses to correct his crossed eyes but it was not until he was in high school that an operation could be performed to cure the problem.

The family moved frequently during his childhood as they followed his father’s work. Finally, they settled in Russell, Kansas where he went to school. When he caught influenza followed by rheumatic fever it was his mother, and later a friend, Edith Jones, who tutored him so that he could stay current with his studies. A good student, he was elected to the Junior National Honor Society his freshman year. The family moved to Casper, Wyoming in 1942 when Reeb’s father was appointed superintendent of the Western Oil Tool & Manufacturing Company. This was the beginning of his love for the Shirley Basin, south and west of Casper, with its wide sky, floating clouds, grasslands and sagebrush.

Reeb spent his last three years of school at Natrona County High School in Casper, graduating in 1945. During this period he developed his social ideals, which recognized the need to improve the lives of the poor and help those denied their full human rights. As a student he enjoyed football and debate. He joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and was soon made its commander. During summers he worked in a filling station or as a laborer at the Casper Army Air Base. He also informed his parents that from now on his name was Jim not Jimmie Joe.

He was a committed Christian as were his parents. With frequent family moves, Reeb attended churches of various denominations; Methodist where he was christened, Baptist, the Christian Church, and Congregational which he joined when he was twelve. In Casper, the family attended the First Presbyterian Church and Reeb was soon the leader of its youth group, the Westminster Fellowship. He also led a Boy’s Club connected to the Army Air base that had been founded by a church member and a young airman. “I cannot remember a time,” Reeb wrote, “when I wasn’t in church on Sunday, nor can I remember a time when I haven’t studied the Bible . . . Just before leaving high school I made my decision to enter the ministry and was taken under care of the Presbytery.”

Reeb joined the Army upon graduation, even though the Second World War was almost over and he was exempt from service since he was committed to the ministry. After basic training he went to Anchorage, Alaska as a clerk typist in the headquarters of Special Troops. When he was honorably discharged eighteen months later, in December 1946, his rank was Technical Sergeant, Third Class.

After the army he went back to school, first at Casper Junior College, then St. Olaf College, a Lutheran evangelical school in Northfield, Minnesota. Taking summer courses, he got his A.B. cum laude in June 1950. Later that summer he married Marie Helen Deason from Casper who he had first met at Casper Junior College. They had four children.

That autumn, Reeb entered Princeton Theological Seminary to prepare for the ministry. He received his B.D. in June 1953 and was ordained at the First Presbyterian Church of Casper a few days later. Rather than seek a church, Reeb accepted the position of Chaplain to Hospitals for the Philadelphia Presbyter at the Philadelphia General Hospital. This interest in pastoral counseling had developed during his days at the seminary. To become a more effective counselor he enrolled at Conwell School of Theology, Temple University where he earned an S.T.M. in the field of Pastoral Counseling, 1955. His course work for the degree was done through the Department of Psychology at Temple’s Medical School. His experience as a chaplain made him more aware, as his biographer Duncan Howlett pointed out, of “the stark realities of life.”

In high school, Reeb was a traditional Bible-centered Christian but during college his religious views slowly evolved toward a more liberal understanding of Christianity. He wrote in 1956, “I have clearly progressed in my views until I am much more of a humanist than a deist or theist.” This eventually led him to Unitarianism.

By chance, a friend gave him Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage by Sophia Fahs. In her book Fahs described the approach she and others followed as they created a modern religious education program for the American Unitarian Association (AUA) during the 1930s and 1940s. Their religious philosophy matched his. As a result, after several conferences with Harry Scholefield of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, he resigned his Presbyterian Chaplaincy in March 1957, and contacted the American Unitarian Association about transferring his fellowship from Presbyterian to Unitarian.

During the five years it took the AUA to process this request, he took a job where he could work closely with Philadelphia’s poor. He served as youth director of the West Branch Y.M.C.A., 1957-1959. When the Unitarians gave him preliminary fellowship he accepted an offer from All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C. to assist Duncan Howlett, their minister. His primary responsibility was to manage the church’s program. His openness, friendliness, and ability to be a mediator were just the characteristics needed in this position. He also worked directly with young people and engaged in pastoral counseling. He was assistant minister from 1959-63; and associate from 1963-64.

Jim Reeb’s concerns and activities soon moved beyond the walls of All Souls to the larger community. He supported various Unitarian Universalist groups, including the College Centers Committee, the Greater Washington, D.C. Federation of Liberal Religious Youth whose adviser he was from 1962-3, the Board of the Joseph Priestley District and the Middle Atlantic States Ministers’ Association. He was just as engaged with organizations seeking to address the social problems of the Washington, D.C., area such as the Interfaith Ministers Group, the Conference on Community Relations, Parents Without Partners, the Committee on Citizen Housing and especially the University Neighborhoods Council.

The one thing Reeb did not do as an assistant minister was preach on a regular basis. He decided he wanted a church of his own in a racially mixed inner city neighborhood where he would be responsible for preaching in addition to counseling, community outreach, and program management. When he could not find a suitable congregation, he accepted the directorship of The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Metropolitan Boston Low Income Housing Program in 1964. The family moved to Boston, Massachusetts and purchased a large Victorian house in Roxbury, an area of the city where many African Americans lived. His daughter Anne recalled that her father “was adamant that you could not make a difference for African-Americans while living comfortable in a white community.”

The Reeb’s joined the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church where Jack Mendelsohn, a social activist, was the minister. Reeb also continued his membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association and remained in communication with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Department of Ministry. In January, 1965 he joined the UUA Commission on Religion and Race chaired by Homer Jack.

At the AFSC, Reeb and his staff worked to alleviate the housing problems of the poor by getting the city to enforce its housing code. This eventually led to the creation of the Boston Housing Inspection Department. On the state level, they worked with the American Jewish Congress to enact laws to protect the rights of tenants. But Reeb’s work in Boston was interrupted by national events.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, 500 civil rights marchers in Alabama attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery and were brutally beaten and gassed by state troopers and local police. On Monday, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in Boston received a telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr., calling for ministers and people of all faiths to come to Selma to support the marchers. By the next day, 45 Unitarian Universalist ministers and 15 laypersons had answered King’s call and journeyed to Selma.

Jim Reeb answered the call even though his wife did not wish him to go. On Tuesday afternoon he joined 2,500 marchers for the second march from Selma to Montgomery. Once again, the police stopped them and once again the marchers returned to Browns Chapel A.M.E. Church for an evening of speeches, singing and prayers.

That evening Reeb had supper with two Unitarian Universalist colleagues, Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, at Walkers Cafe, a local black restaurant. He had planned to return to Boston that night, but changed his mind. He called his wife to say he was staying one more day. Leaving the cafe to return to Browns Chapel, the trio took a wrong turn and strayed from a black neighborhood into a white neighborhood. Outside of the Silver Moon Cafe four men yelling “Hey niggers, hey, you, niggers” viciously attacked and beat them. The result left Miller and Olson wounded while Reeb was severely injured by a blow to his skull from a club. Needing a neurosurgeon, he was driven ninety miles by ambulance to University Hospital in Birmingham. He died two days later. Following his wishes, the family had his body cremated and the ashes scattered over the Wyoming prairie.

A memorial service was held at Browns Chapel in Selma on Monday, March 15. Over one hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers and another one hundred laypersons, as well as the UUA Board of Trustees attended. At the service Dana McLean Greeley, the UUA President, offered prayers and Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the eulogy. King said in part: “He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers.” The Arlington Street Church in Boston and All Souls, Unitarian in Washington, D.C. also held memorial services as did congregations across the country. Viola Liuzzo attended a memorial service at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Detroit, Michigan a few days before driving to Selma to participate in the third Selma to Montgomery march.

That evening President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress on behalf of his proposed voting rights act. In his “We Shall Overcome” speech he stated that at Selma “long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their right as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man—a man of God—was killed.” He then urged Congress to outlaw all voting practices that denied or abridged “the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Despite opposition from some in Congress, and the nation, the landmark act passed and on August 6, 1965 Johnson signed it.When Reeb applied for Unitarian ministerial fellowship he wrote, “I want to participate in the continuous creation of a vision that will inspire our people to noble and courageous living. I want to share actively in the adventure of trying to forge the spiritual ties that will bind mankind together in brotherhood and peace.” That he did.


The Andover-Harvard Theological Library at the Harvard Divinity School in Boston, Massachusetts has Reeb’s ministerial file, records of the UUA Department of Social Responsibility, and papers of UUA President, Dana McLean Greeley. See also the papers of his biographer, Duncan Howlett in the Moulton Library at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine.

For biographical data see Duncan Howlett, No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story, (1993); Mark W. Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism, (2004); Dana McLean Greeley, 25 Beacon Street: And Other Recollections, (1971); Jack Mendelsohn, The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, (1966); Stewart E. Perry, Building a Model Black Community: The Roxbury Action Program, (1978); and the Reeb entry in Who Was Who in America.

For a vivid first hand account of the Selma experience, and a list of UU ministers who were there, see Richard D. Leonard, Call to Selma: Eighteen Days of Witness, (2002). For an overview of the American civil rights movement see Charles E. Fager, Selma, 1964, (1974); and Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, (2006). Magazine and newspaper articles of interest include: Martin Luther King, Jr, “A Witness to the Truth,” UU World (May/June 2001); Clark Olsen, “The Longest March,” UU World (May/June 2001); Ralph Krog, “The Martyrdom of Rev. James Reeb,” Starr King, Fall 2008; and Scott Helman, “A Death in Selma,” Boston Globe (July 17, 2011).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted January 12, 2012