April 6th, 1958
Execution of Wrongfully Convicted Black Teen Jeremiah Reeves Sparks Protest in Montgomery
On November 10, 1952, Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black high school student and jazz drummer, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, and interrogated about the rape of Mabel Ann Crowder the previous July. Ms. Crowder, a white woman, had claimed rape after she and was discovered in her home having sex with Jeremiah – sex many in the black community suspected was part of a consensual, ongoing affair. Within minutes of his arrest, Jeremiah was taken to Kilby Prison where, during “questioning” by police, he was strapped into the electric chair and told that he would be electrocuted unless he admitted committing all of the rapes of white women reported that summer. The fearful boy soon confessed to the charges against him.
The local NAACP chapter became involved in his case and attracted the attention of national leadership, including lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Marshall and other counsel won reversal of Jeremiah’s conviction on December 6, 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge at Jeremiah’s first trial was wrong to prevent the jury from hearing evidence of how his confession was obtained.
While winding its way through the courts, Jeremiah’s case also became a flashpoint for Montgomery’s nascent civil rights movement. Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at fifteen for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a Birmingham bus in March 1955, was inspired to take that protest action as a show of support for Jeremiah, her friend and schoolmate. Claudette later became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that led the Supreme Court to order buses desegregated in 1956. Rosa Parks also corresponded with Jeremiah and got his poetry published in the Birmingham World; she went on to repeat Colvin’s gesture in December 1955, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott.
In the second trial, in June 1955, Jeremiah was again convicted and sentenced to death. All appeals were unsuccessful and he was executed on March 28, 1958, at age 22. Jeremiah had spent much of his time in prison writing poetry, and he willed his final poem to his mother.
On April 6, 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at an Easter rally in Montgomery on the marked spot on the Capitol steps where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861. In his speech, Dr. King protested the unequal treatment of white and black defendants and victims in the courts, and concluded: “Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.”
The Ku Klux Klan tried to disrupt the rally, and afterward a group of thirty-nine local white ministers released a statement decrying the protesters’ “exaggerated emphasis on wrongs and grievances.”