The first UU church I ever attended was James Reeb Unitarian Universalist congregation in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1965, Reeb responded to Martin Luther King’s call to white clergy to come to Alabama to be in solidarity with the quest to gain voting rights for blacks. He left his wife and 4 children in Roxbury, Massachusetts in time for the march from Selma to Montgomery. Reeb was in the sea of marchers – 2000 African Americans, along with 400 religious leaders from outside the south – to begin the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. Peacefully, they began their walk but soon encountered a blockade of state troopers commanding them to disperse. When they held their ground, the marchers were attacked with club and tear gas until they ran for safety.
That day, March 7, 1965 came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The news footage shocked the nation.
Two days later, Rev. James Reeb ate dinner at an integrated restaurant. Following the meal, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers, Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller were beaten by white men for their support of African American rights. Two days later, Reeb died from the injuries he sustained.
Less than 2 weeks later, a federally sanctioned march from Selma Montgomery happened. In August 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
This part of our Unitarian Universalist story is worth remembering, especially this month where our theme is Journey.
James Reeb’s journey ended in Selma when the white hospital he was taken to refused to treat him and the black hospital had inadequate facilities to operate. And yet, his journey continues to live on in our shared journey.
King eulogized Reeb. In part, he said, “The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb, for he symbolizes the forces of goodwill in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers.” In short, King named the essence of Reeb’s journey when he said simply, “His crime was that he dared to live his faith.”
As we examine what it might mean to be a people of journey, I appreciate the invitation to be a part of the legacy of James Reeb and to dare to live my faith. For in the end, what can be said of any of our lives, but that our living was a testament to the truths we held so dear we answered the call, put ourselves on bridges of solidarity, and moved with others toward something better than we knew.