Reeb Memorial Lecture will focus on events in Selma in 1965
In March 1965, the Rev. Clark Olsen answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to march with him in Selma, Alabama.
Shortly after arriving in Selma, Olsen and two other clergy members — including St. Olaf College alumnus James Reeb ’50 — were attacked by white supremacists as they were leaving a diner. Reeb died from his injuries two days later.
Olsen will visit St. Olaf March 10 to share how the tragic events of that day shaped the course of his life — and the course of the nation’s history.
After speaking in chapel in the morning, Olsen will deliver the James J. Reeb Memorial Lecture at 3:30 p.m. in Viking Theater. The lecture, which will be streamed and archived online, is free and open to the public.
In the lecture, titled Selma 1965: A Turning Point in History, Olsen will discuss the attack on the ministers and how the events of that night prompted him to become a staunch advocate for civil and human rights. He will also speak to the need for more people to take a stand and fight against those systems, institutions, and people who seek to oppress others.
Olsen shared his story with The New York Times last year in a moving documentary about the role that Reeb’s death played in the civil rights movement.
“Thousands of people gathered in various cities — Washington, Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco — and it made headlines all across the country about this attack on a white clergyman,” Olsen says in the documentary.
“I began to realize that we were the center of attention — that this was a big event.”
On March 15, 1965, four days after Reeb’s death, President Lyndon Johnson invoked his memory — “that good man” — as he introduced the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress.
“I believe that Johnson was moved by the attack on us and by Jim Reeb’s death,” Olsen says. “The president realized that this was the moment to urge passage of the voting rights bill.”
Congress responded, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. It is widely considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation enacted in the U.S.
During the national celebration marking the 50th anniversary of that legislation last spring, Olsen shared his story and honored Reeb’s legacy in interviews with media outlets around the world.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis honored Olsen with its 2015 Freedom Award, and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees chose him to receive the denomination’s annual Distinguished Service Award.
Olsen is a fitting choice to deliver the inaugural talk in the endowed James J. Reeb Memorial Lecture series, which each year will bring nationally and internationally renowned speakers to campus whose life, work, and dedication to the cause of social justice and human rights are an inspiring example for the St. Olaf community.
The endowment to support the lecture series was established by Paul Jeffrey Parks in memory of his companion, Stephen Henry Oertel, who died of AIDS in 1989. Parks hopes that this annual series contributes to ongoing conversations about social justice and serves to remember Oertel and his commitment to these issues.
“The entire St. Olaf community will benefit from Paul’s incredible generosity in establishing this lecture series,” says St. Olaf Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King. “It will provide an opportunity each year for the college to host courageous individuals working for social justice, equality, and global understanding. This lectureship will also serve as a reminder of St. Olaf’s important role in changing the world for the better through the advancement of social justice issues.”
Olsen’s career includes more than 20 years as a Unitarian-Universalist minister and as vice president of programs and planning for the Unitarian Universalist Association. He has served on numerous UUA committees, as well as on the Board of Trustees for Starr King School for the Ministry.
He also worked for 30 years in the broad area of organizational and individual effectiveness and strategic planning, consulting with many small businesses and Fortune 500 companies as well as churches and community organizations.
Olsen holds degrees from Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Starr King School for the Ministry. He makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina.