March 11th, 1965

Boston Minister Dies After Beating in Selma, Alabama

On March 7, 1965, a peaceful crowd of 600 people led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to show their support for black voting rights. Police armed with batons, pepper spray, and guns attacked the marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in a violent assault that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

After the attack, Dr. King remained determined to complete the march. He urged clergy throughout the country to come to Selma and join the march to Montgomery. Hundreds of clergy from across the country heeded the call and traveled to Selma, including Reverend James Reeb, 38, a white Unitarian minister from Boston.

On March 9, 1965, Dr. King led 2500 marchers onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a short prayer session. That evening, three white ministers, Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen, and James Reeb, were attacked and beaten by a group of white men. Struck in the head with a club, Reverend Reeb suffered a severe skull fracture and brain damage.

Fearing that he would not be treated at the “whites-only” Selma Hospital, doctors at Selma’s black Burwell Infirmary ordered Reverend Reeb rushed to the Birmingham hospital. After a series of unfortunate events, including car trouble and confrontations with local police, Reverend Reeb reached the hospital in Birmingham in critical condition. He died on March 11, 1965, leaving his wife and four children. Three white men were later indicted for Reverend Reeb’s murder but were acquitted by an all-white jury.

More widely reported than the death of local black activist Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks earlier, Reverend Reeb’s death brought national attention to the voting rights struggle and moved President Lyndon B. Johnson to call a special session of Congress, where he urged legislators to pass the Voting Rights Act. The president signed the act into law in August 1965.