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St. Olaf commemorates legacy of slain civil rights activist

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St. Olaf alumnus James Reeb ’50

In one scene in the Academy Award-nominated film Selma, St. Olaf College alumnus James Reeb ’50 is shown lying on a dark street, having been beaten by white supremacists.

He would die from his injuries two days later.

A Boston minister who had answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma and raise his voice in protest, Reeb’s death became an important milestone in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As part of the national celebration marking the 50th anniversary of that legislation, St. Olaf will host a daylong commemoration of Reeb’s legacy March 12. His daughter Anne and granddaughter Leah will be on campus to speak about the role he played in the voting rights movement and how they honor the legacy of his work toward civil and human rights today.

The Rev. Gilbert Caldwell, an activist who traveled with Reeb to Selma, will also be on campus to speak about their experiences and the continuing struggle for inclusive civil rights.

‘We must substitute courage for caution’
James Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister working to improve housing opportunities for low-income black residents in Boston when he turned on the TV on the evening of March 7, 1965, and saw the coverage of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday.”

As someone who had spoken out for civil rights, desegregation, and an end to Jim Crow laws, Reeb was inflamed by what had happened in Selma. So when Martin Luther King Jr. called on clergy of all denominations to join him for a peaceful march in the city, Reeb left Boston and headed south.

James Reeb’s murder garnered national media attention and inspired a wave of protests, memorial services, and calls for federal action.

James Reeb’s murder garnered national media attention and inspired a wave of protests, memorial services, and calls for federal action.

That Tuesday, Reeb and the other marchers — led by King — started over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and stopped at the site of the Bloody Sunday attack. There they knelt, prayed, and sang “We Shall Overcome” before retreating to Selma.

That evening, Reeb and two other ministers visited a diner run by local black citizens. As they were leaving, four white men attacked them on the street with clubs. One of the attackers hit Reeb in the head, fracturing his skull. Reeb died from his injuries in a Birmingham hospital two days later.

Reeb’s death inspired a wave of nationwide protests, memorial services, and calls for federal action, helping to create the political groundswell that President Lyndon Johnson needed to introduce new voting rights legislation — a fact referenced in the film Selma.

On March 15, 1965, four days after Reeb’s death, Johnson invoked his memory — “that good man” — as he introduced the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress.

At Reeb’s memorial service, held in Selma that same day, King delivered the eulogy.

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President David R. Anderson ’74 and students traveling through Alabama as part of a history course gathered in Selma in January to lay a wreath at the memorial to James Reeb ’50.

“In his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike — that we must substitute courage for caution, that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder,” King told mourners.

“His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.”

A campuswide commemoration
In addition to the celebration of Reeb’s legacy, St. Olaf is hosting a series of events to commemorate the role alumni and others played in the civil rights movement.

The events — collectively titled A Long Walk Home: 50 Years of Climbing the Hill to Freedom — include:

  • An art exhibit that documents the Selma-to-Montgomery marches through 45 photographs from the archives of Stephen Somerstein.
  • A discussion with St. Olaf alumni Jeff Strate ’66 and Sheryl Anderson Renslo ’66, the producers of a documentary film titled Alabama Return that chronicles the experiences of 65 St. Olaf students who volunteered for the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Program in the summer of 1965.
  • Screenings of the Academy Award–nominated film Selma.