St. Olaf College | News

President Anderson, students honor James Reeb ’50 in Selma

Members of the St. Olaf and Selma communities look on as President Anderson lays a wreath at the memorial to James Reeb '50.
Members of the St. Olaf and Selma communities look on as President Anderson lays a wreath at the memorial to James Reeb ’50.

Nearly 50 years after St. Olaf College alumnus James Reeb was killed for his participation in the civil rights movement, President David R. Anderson ’74 and students traveling through Alabama as part of a history course gathered in Selma to honor him.

The group, which included the 12 students taking Professor of History Mike Fitzgerald’s Creating Southern History course, laid wreaths at two historical markers in the city.

Reeb, who graduated from St. Olaf in 1950, was working as a Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts when he turned on the TV in 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.

The march was scheduled for that Tuesday, but King temporarily called it off amid fears of an ambush. 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. Reeb died from his injuries in a local 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 new Academy Award-nominated 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, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy.

“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.”

St. Olaf Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King says Reeb symbolizes the idea that one person’s actions can make a difference.

“He was someone who acted on his convictions, and it made an impact,” King says.

Read local news coverage of the event.