“Is there nothing in life worth risking the end of one’s life for? Are there no dreams so important that we can risk our own destruction in order to make them come true?” —James Joseph Reeb, circa 1959
James Reeb, Class of 1953, was passionate about helping the poor, delinquent, and those with mental illnesses. His master passion was the welfare of people.
He served as a Presbyterian chaplain in a Philadelphia hospital and later went on to serve as an assistant pastor for a Unitarian Universalist church in Washington DC. He began to feel that his seminary education was irrelevant to his passion for helping people. He put psychiatry before theology and grew away from traditionalist Presbyterian teachings and toward the Unitarian Universalist Church. After three years of active service at All-Souls Church in Washington DC, he was fully ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1962. He later found his place as a Quaker working with a low-income housing project in Boston, Massachusetts.
Reeb appreciated the church’s emphasis on social action and became active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. However, his efforts in the voting rights campaign had not even spanned one day when white assailants attacked him. He was beaten to death in 1965 while marching with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. Reeb died on March 11, 1965.
His death seemed, at least in part, to be the motivation for President Lyndon Johnson’s introduction of the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress four days later. Although the President invited King to attend the event, King refused, opting instead to offer Reeb’s eulogy in Brown Chapel in Selma that day.