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In 1965 fifty nuns marched in Selma, Alabama to get ‘liberty and justice for all,” They marched arm in arm with black and white laity and clergy of varied faiths. They responded to the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to put their lives on the line in a protest affirming faith in the American Creed of individual equality in freedom. One of those who went was a young minister, James Reeb.
I happened to know Jim. The first time I met him was on a Sunday when he attended the church of which I was the pastor. His unmistakable friendliness was immediately evident, and it did not take long to feel the fuller depth of his passion for the powerless. Members of the congregation appreciated this when Jim conducted the services of worship when I was preaching elsewhere.
For the preceding four years, Jim had been the Protestant Chaplain at the Philadelphia General Hospital. At the time he was doing Y.M.C.A. work with youth. I happened to help to work out arrangements by which he began his next five years of work as one of the ministers of All Souls Church in the nation’s capitol. Among his activities there, he substantially aided the underprivileged by serving as the chairman of the pioneering Neighborhood Council. He also was the founding chairman of another important new establishment, an interfaith association of Washington, D.C., clergy.
Jim’s next ministry was full-time work to help raise standards of life in Boston’s black ghetto—a difficult assignment with the American Friends Service Committee. To do this he and his family moved into the neighborhood of the ghetto, waging daily war against poverty and prejudice.
He didn’t want to go to Selma, nor did Marie, his wife, want him to go. Though he was well aware of the dangers, Jim decided to go because, as he said, “It’s the kind of fight I believe in.” One senseless blow on the head by an unknown assailant took his life and left his children fatherless. Nevertheless, his death was not in vain. The nation was enraged, including President Lyndon Johnson, who lay the federal Voting Rights Act before a special session of Congress the following Monday evening.
Two days after her husband’s death Marie Reeb received the following letter, accompanied by a medal:
Dear Mrs. Reeb,
Twenty years ago I was awarded the enclosed medal. The citation read in part-“volunteered to accompany a platoon of light tanks in order to point out targets for their effective fire—he advanced through a town in advance of the armored vehicles-firing his submarine at targets of opportunity.
Your late husband, Reverend Reeb, volunteered to accompany his fellowmen against a greater threat to the principles of our country than my opponent, the German soldier.—Reverend Reeb was unarmed except for his convictions; his “armed support” was the songs and prayers of the oppressed.
“Would you please give this medal to your oldest son, John? His father was a much braver American than I….”
— Abridged from “The Relevant Reverend” by Rev. Dr. Herbert F. Vetter