Kansas civil rights martyr noted in movie ‘Selma’

Kansan James Reeb was attacked the same day he took part in a march with Martin Luther King Jr. Reeb died two days later.
Kansan James Reeb was attacked the same day he took part in a march with Martin Luther King Jr. Reeb died two days later. Courtesy photo

Although the movie “Selma” focuses on Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to lead the civil rights movement, it also tells the story of ordinary people called to stand up against violence.

One of those people was Wichitan James Reeb. Actor Jeremy Strong portrays Reeb in the movie.

The film, which will be released nationally in January, recounts the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., that sought voting rights for black people.

Reeb was born on Jan. 1, 1927, in Wichita and grew up in Wichita and Russell. His parents were Mae and Harry Reeb. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, then became a Presbyterian minister. He later transferred to the Unitarian Church.

He was attracted to social issues and worked to help people who were poor or discriminated against.

In 1959, he moved his wife and children to Boston so he could work with the American Friends Service Committee in slum neighborhoods.

On March 7, 1965, he watched on television at his home in Boston as law enforcement officers attacked demonstrators as they tried to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Selma march. So many people were beaten that the day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The next day, King petitioned clergy across the nation to join him in Selma to march across the bridge. Reeb boarded a plane for Alabama later that night.

On March 9, 1965, known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” Reeb joined King and other protesters in Selma. That evening, as he and two other Unitarian ministers walked away after a meal at the Silver Moon Cafe, an integrated restaurant, segregationists attacked and bludgeoned them. Reeb died two days later.

King gave Reeb’s eulogy, saying the Wichitan “symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation ... the conscience of the nation. ... He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat and work together as brothers.”

People across the nation mourned Reeb. In Wichita, whites and blacks marched down Main Street for a memorial service at the Central Post Office, according to a Jan. 18, 1986, article in The Wichita Eagle.

President Lyndon B. Johnson called Reeb’s widow and parents to express his sorrow. On March 15, 1965, the president mentioned Reeb while delivering a draft of the Voting Rights Act to Congress.

Nearly 50 years later, no one has been convicted of Reeb’s murder. An all-white jury acquitted three white men in 1965.

“We wouldn’t have the Voting Rights Act today if it were not for Reeb’s martyrdom,” said Mark McCormick, director of the Kansas African American Museum.

The museum plans to create an exhibit about Reeb and his contributions to the civil rights movement, McCormick said. He also wants to help tell the story of Kansas’ ties to civil rights in Alabama. The museum plans a public tour to Alabama next summer.

“Kansas’ influence is as much a part of the historical flora and the fauna there as the Spanish moss draping the trees – and that history today hangs by a thread,” McCormick wrote in a column for the Kansas Leadership Center.

He contends Kansas’ influences in Selma should be more widely known.

Wichita was the first city to have a successful sit-in. Late in the summer of 1958, 10 members of the youth chapter of the NAACP staged a sit-in at the lunch counter at the Dockum Drugs Store on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway.

Their nonviolent effort resulted in Dockum and eventually other Rexall stores across the state providing seated service for blacks.

“Wichita teens executed the first successful, student-led sit-in in 1958 and Rexall drugstores nation-wide desegregated. But seeing the Selma Rexall store made me wonder just when racial recalcitrants actually abided by the edict,” McCormick wrote.

In addition, memorials in Selma commend federal court Judge Frank Johnson, who was called “the face of justice in America” by King. Johnson, who had been appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower, a Kansan, helped make several landmark rulings that desegregated schools and buses, allowed blacks to serve on juries and authorized the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

“There is a lot of civil rights history here – in Kansas – and there in Selma, with Kansas connections,” McCormick told The Eagle. “It is our duty to maintain, save and share our significant contribution to civil rights. It could also be a tourism draw that tells the story and the significant role we had in all of this. The history is so close to us here because of Mr. Reeb.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Movie trailer

To see the movie trailer for “Selma,” go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6t7vVTxaic

Civil rights tour

The Kansas African American museum is conducting a civil rights tour from Wichita to Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Ala., June 12-14. Cost is $825 per person and includes airfare and charter bus.

The tour covers national museums and historical sites, including a place where slaves were held and sold, where the Rev. James Reeb was attacked, Martin Luther King Jr.’s home and a church service at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

For more information, contact Devin Hansen at Sunflower Travel, 316-634-1700, or Jaquette Thompson at the Kansas African American Museum, 316-262-7651.