Fifty-six years ago this week, the Rev. James Reeb was clubbed by a Klansman on a street in Selma, Alabama. My future friend, Rev. Clark Olsen was walking on one side of Jim, and Rev. Orloff Miller was walking in the middle, with Reeb on the outside, curbside. They had finished dinner at an integrated café, were returning to the church where Dr. King would soon be speaking. Three men came out of a bar across the street and approached the three ministers from behind. Without warning, one of the Klansmen took a mighty swing at Reeb’s head. There was an awful crunching sound, Olsen told us, in a voice growing tremulous. He and Miller tried to get medical help, but were told they had to go to a larger town with a facility for trauma.
For Olsen and Miller, the ride to the hospital was more fearsome than the clubbing, because they were being followed by a carload of hate-filled Klansmen. Their car began to have mechanical problems, and the two feared that if they had had to stop, they would be killed too.
They made it to the hospital, but Reeb died on March 11th, 1965, two days from the single blow. The club was probably an ax-handle.
As the movie Selma (2015) shows, the murder helped LBJ pass the first Voting Rights Acts. He referred to Rev. Reeb as a “minister from Boston,” robbing us of a much-needed word of recognition.
I have heard Clark tell this story a dozen times, and no matter that it was 30, 40, 50 years ago, he couldn’t keep from weeping.
He died in 2019, age 85. Two years before, in 2017, the year I was the Interim Minister at Charlotte and conducted 3 white-supremacy teach-ins, I drove out to Ashville in West Carolina to see my old friend, bringing with me my DRE and friend Jolena and her two mixed-raced children, Zoe and Kai. I asked Clark to tell them the story. He did again, and again he could not keep from weeping. All four of us are very happy that we got to hear that story told by a witness-participant of a Civil Rights martyrdom for nearly the last time. Clark died a little more than two years later.
You can read Clark’s obituary in The New York Times.
Rev. Leland Bond-Upson