James Reeb & All Souls Church
Fifty-two years ago today, the Ides of March, 1965 I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia. Once a week via Pan Am the mail was flown in and we got stateside newspapers and magazines. That's the day I learned that James Reeb, who had been my youth leader at All Souls Church in the District of Columbia the previous two years, had died four days earlier. He had been clubbed to death by a KKK member after having dinner in Selma, Alabama with two fellow Unitarian ministers. Reeb had been among the second set of about 2,000 Marcher's on “turn around Tuesday” when Martin Luther King, Jr stepped into the fray in Selma. This was days after Alabama state troopers had rebuked the first set of marchers of about 650 people at the Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, when John Lewis and Josea Williams and others had been trampled to the ground, the image most associated with the Selma incidents of March 1965. This encounter became known as “Bloody Sunday. It was “Bloody Sunday” that impelled Reeb to go to Selma.
It is not that Reeb's death was the first, nor the last, in the Civil Rights struggle for African Americans in the United States. In fact it had been the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson that had sparked the Selma March to begin with. He was a civil rights activist and deacon of his Baptist church in Marion, AL. A state trooper had shot him a month earlier during a peaceful voting rights demonstration. But it was at a particular moment, with the clubbing of Reeb, that our national leader declared the violence was too much and change was needed.
On this same day, as I was reading days old news in Indonesia, President Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress seeking passage of the Voting Rights Act. At the end, this Texas politician made reference to Reeb and declared, “We shall overcome.” On August 6, 1965 President Johnson signed the Act into law.
Among my Western high school classmates we almost always acknowledge the passing of James Reeb. A large group within our high school class, like myself, attended his Sunday late afternoon sessions called Charmians, a CYO group, that Rev. Reeb lead as assistant minister at All Souls. We sat in circle in a large 2nd floor meeting room and discussed the issues that confronted us as youth of the day. A group of blacks and whites, Latinos and Asian young, large among the issues we talked about was race. Reeb made us see, and understand better, injustices in our world.
All Souls Church on 16th Street at Harvard, Washington, DC. Insert three older Charmains, in 1975.
On mentioning Rev. Reeb's death, and the vast impact he had on us, always a discussion emerges about the central role All Souls Church had on our varied experiences in DC. The Church had been one of the only places in the Nation's Capital where mixed race gatherings took place on a regular basis for decades. Eleanor Roosevelt held numerous meetings there for groups of women. It was where I went, age 16, on my own, on the Sunday after President Kennedy was assassinated.
The church sits at Harvard Street on 16th Street some 25 blocks due north of the White House. This particular year, 2017, when one classmate mentioned that March 11 was the anniversary of James Reeb's death, another classmate immediately piped up: About the same time as our CYO started to meet with Reeb:
“All Souls is where Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz recorded " Jazz Samba" in 1962. To this day it is the only jazz recording ever to have been #1 on the Billboard charts and introduced the world to Desafinado, One Note Samba and bossa nova. They chose that site because of the incredible acoustics. “
The stories about All Souls abound. A good handful of my classmates know the space best as where they regularly played basketball on Saturdays when we were in high school. There were spectacular International Bazaars, where I once bought a wonderful orange and green silk sari. My favorite story is from one class mate whose mother worked as the secretary to the minister, Ralph K.Davies. Jackie Robinson came to visit, and there is a photo of my classmate, circa age ten, sitting on the steps of the church with the famous ball player who broke the color barrier in baseball. It made front page news in one of the black presses of the day. I so vividly see this image, that I thought my classmate shared the photo. He didn't, but still the image is firmly placed in my mind.
Frame from SELMA with insert of James Reeb.
Another classmate remarked on our class list serv that over the years she lamented the lack of recognition of James Reeb in the Civil Rights struggle. But then in recent years she was pleased to report that she started to see various places that acknowledged his sacrifice. Most harrowing and long lasting will be the recreation in Ava DuVarney's motion picture, SELMA (2014), of the attack on James Reeb as a part of the fabric of that historic series of actions within the Civil Rights movement.