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Letter from Selma

The 1965 murder of a white Boston minister helped usher in the Voting Rights Act and left lasting scars on this Alabama city. Then the FBI reopened the case and the painful past came flooding back.

UNDER AN INK-BLACK SKY, Route 80 dips and curves through the Alabama night, the hardwoods and loblolly pines faintly silhouetted against the darkness. The Alabama River rushes beneath the Edmund Pettus Bridge, carrying untold stories. And then, on the other side, she appears, this Queen City of the Black Belt, her roots deep in the prairie soil. Selma is a small town with a big history.

Shut your eyes and you can see it still: the 600 civil rights marchers massed on the bridge, crossing out of Selma toward Montgomery; the state troopers, on foot and on horseback, pounding them with nightsticks and bullwhips, firing tear gas, leaving bodies gnarled on the pavement; the fear on everyone’s faces, white and black, in a city that became, in the 1960s, synonymous with bigotry and oppression.

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It was here, among the moss-draped live oaks, antebellum houses, and lasting secrets of those turbulent days, that I’d come chasing the ghost of James Joseph Reeb.

A white 38-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister with an earnest smile and tinted glasses, Reeb lived and worked in Boston’s black neighborhoods. To him, one couldn’t just believe in social justice; one had to defend it. So when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. summoned clergy to Selma after Bloody Sunday - the name attached to March 7, 1965, when Alabama authorities sent 17 marchers to the hospital Reeb knew he had no choice.

He had been warned about going to Alabama. Many in Selma didn’t take kindly to outsiders dictating how they should live. The day he arrived, a white gang viciously assaulted him and two other ministers on a downtown street, a few blocks from the Pettus Bridge. Struck in the head with a club, he lapsed into a coma and died two days later.

Reeb was hardly the only activist killed in the bloody fight for civil rights in fact, a black man had been shot dead in a nearby town just weeks earlier. But it took the death of a white minister to move a nation. Four days later, 70 million people tuned in to watch President Lyndon B. Johnson plead with Congress for stronger civil rights laws. That summer, he signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law.

In what passed for Southern justice in those days, three men were tried for Reeb’s murder and swiftly acquitted by an all-white jury. But last year, after almost a half century, the FBI informed local authorities and Reeb’s family that it was reopening the case, igniting hopes that someone would finally be held accountable. Justice deferred, the thinking went, was still a kind of justice.

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With state and federal authorities reexamining dozens of decades-old murders and disappearances in the South, places like Selma are again being forced to confront ugly chapters from their past. But the remembering is complicated here, and so is the forgetting. ``You can get a pretty good argument on either side of it,’’ says Jamie Wallace, a reporter for the Selma Times-Journal in the 1960s. ``People feel like there’s nothing to be gained from digging [the past] back up. And I’m sure on the other side, the people who were really hurt would say, `Well, justice needs to be served.’”

Many others fall somewhere in the middle. Frances Bowden, now 73 years old, was managing the Coffee Pot Cafe across the street the evening Reeb was beaten. She was sick about his death and calls the men who were tried ``mean as a snake - all of them.’’ But she testified at trial for the defense. And she wishes the whole era could be given to history, that Selma could be allowed to bury its demons. ``You don’t,’’ she says, ``just keep digging up the dead.’’

***

Around 1920, Mae Reeb made a pact with God. She had just delivered a stillborn child and nearly died herself, Duncan Howlett writes in his book, “No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story.” ``O Lord,’’ she prayed, ``if thou wilt heal me and give me another child, I will give him to thee. Whatever you may wish to use him for, that he shall do.’’ On New Year’s Day in 1927, God held up his end of the bargain. Mae Reeb gave birth to a son. She called him Jimmie Joe.

James Reeb was a sickly child. He developed rheumatic fever. He caught whooping cough. From 18 months old, he wore glasses over his crossed eyes, a defect that attracted teasing from classmates. But the experience, together with his religious and loving home, forged in him a strong moral compass and empathy for those who didn’t fit in, Howlett writes. In high school in Casper, Wyoming, Reeb became known for his strong convictions. He tried out for the debate team but failed to make the cut he couldn’t argue positions he didn’t believe in.

A devout Presbyterian, Reeb had long intended to become a minister. He attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, then Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He married a local Casper girl, Marie Deason, and worked as a hospital chaplain in Philadelphia. But despite being ordained, theological doubts ate at him, until the questions grew too loud, too numerous. He drifted to the Unitarian Church, drawn to its emphasis on social action. The decision to leave caused him great anguish. ``Why do I always have to do the noble thing?’’ he wrote in his diary in 1957.

For several years, Reeb served as assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. But a church job was not enough to sate him. ``American society is today indicted for what it is doing to the Negro,’’ he said in an April 1964 sermon. ``In that struggle, we should be prepared to make any sacrifice.’’ For Reeb, that meant trading the pulpit for what his biographer calls ``the decaying heart of a city.’’ On September 1, 1964, Reeb found that in Boston, becoming director of a low-income housing program run by the American Friends Service Committee. ``When I am in the inner city,’’ he once told a friend, ``there is a sense in which I feel I am still on the Wyoming prairie.’’

Planning to settle in Boston, Reeb and his wife, now with four children, bought an 11-room house on Half Moon Street in Dorchester. They enjoyed the beach, visited museums, got a ping-pong table, and saw The Sound of Music.They joined Arlington Street Church downtown.

During the day, Reeb and three colleagues operated out of a narrow, rented storefront at 350 Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, using discarded office furniture from Beth Israel hospital. They assisted tenants in disputes with unscrupulous landlords and helped the homeless find housing. When a fire killed four people in a tenement on Hammond Street in Roxbury, they worked to uncover serious code violations. The revelations implicated Boston’s lax inspections, and city leaders were furious.

Reeb also backed the Boston NAACP’s fight to desegregate city schools. His oldest son, John, was bullied at Boston’s Patrick T. Campbell School, which was nearly all black, but he kept John there, even after a local NAACP official told him she wouldn’t let her own children go to a school like that. Reeb was determined to live among the people he’d come to help. Though he came across ``a little on the innocent side,’’ says Bob Gustafson, a field worker for the housing program, Reeb saw his work with poor blacks as ``a religious calling.’’

And on Sunday, March 7, 1965, Jim Reeb heard a call he couldn’t ignore. That night, he and Marie turned on the 11 o’clock news and were appalled at what they saw: the spectacular violence of Bloody Sunday, orchestrated in part by Jim Clark, Selma’s county sheriff. Martin Luther King Jr. quickly wired religious organizations, pleading for clergy of all faiths to march in Selma that Tuesday. ``We have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America,’’ King wrote. ``It is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.’’

Reeb knew his presence as a white minister would help showcase the breadth of the activists’ coalition. He worried, though, about leaving his family. Was he needed in Selma badly? he asked a church official. ``Badly,’’ he was told.

For his part, Gustafson had worked in the South and knew the risks firsthand. A camp he helped start for civil rights workers in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. On Monday afternoon, in their office on Blue Hill Avenue, Gustafson warned Reeb that he could be killed. ``I kind of got the sense that he thought we were being a little too dramatic,’’ Gustafson recalls. ``He was not about to change his mind.’’ On his desk, Reeb left notes from neighbors asking for help securing better garbage disposal, pamphlets on Quaker beliefs in nonviolence, and a reminder to order a new wastebasket.

That evening, before heading to the airport, Reeb read his two daughters bedtime stories. He promised he would be back soon. ``I don’t want you to go,’’ Marie Reeb told her husband, according to Howlett. ``You belong here.’’ Reeb responded that he belonged in Selma. ``It’s the kind of fight I believe in,’’ he said.

***

Never drive alone.

Run into the wind when tear gas is fired.

Don’t trust the police.

The instructions from local activists made it clear: Reeb and three fellow Unitarians traveling with him, including Orloff Miller of Hingham, were heading straight into danger as they arrived in Selma on Tuesday, March 9.

A few thousand activists and clergy from around the country assembled for another march across the Pettus Bridge. County and state authorities lay in wait on the far side, led by Jim Clark, the segregationist sheriff who wore his beliefs on his sleeve, courtesy of a pin that read ``NEVER.’’

Among the troopers and onlookers, out-of-towners drew particular scorn. Frances Bowden, who was behind the counter of her cafe that day, explains how many of Selma’s white residents viewed the outsiders: ``They come in here and try to shove something down your throat. It’s hard to swallow when it’s not greased.’’ Faya Rose Toure, a Harvard Law-trained black civil rights lawyer and activist in Selma, says some whites at that time believed: ``Black life is not valuable, and anybody who values black life is considered a traitor. Therefore, they are deserving of death.’’

Led by King, Reeb and the other marchers started over the bridge, flanked by columns of police. ``We walked through a sea of white hostility so real that you could see it, hear it, and feel it,’’ Weymouth pastor Richard Norsworthy observed in his notebook that night. King had quietly agreed to stop short of the wall of state troopers and turn back a deal that earned the day the moniker ``Turnaround Tuesday’’ so the group knelt, prayed, and sang ``We Shall Overcome.’’ And then they retreated.

Planning to leave Selma that night, Reeb stowed his suitcase in the car of another Unitarian and then went back to Brown Chapel, the local headquarters for civil rights activists, to hear King outline his plan. King asked everyone to stay, hopeful of winning permission for a full march to Montgomery on Thursday. Reeb took his suitcase out of the car. He found Orloff Miller, who directed a college program at the church’s Boston headquarters, and another acquaintance, Clark Olsen, a Massachusetts native and minister at a Unitarian church in Berkeley, California. They went off to find dinner.

Walker’s Cafe was packed. Normally a black restaurant, it was a kaleidoscope that evening of ministers and civil rights activists, an oasis of like-mindedness in hostile territory. The three men devoured a meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Reeb and Miller called their wives from the restaurant’s phone booth. Everything is fine, they said, we’re going to stay one more day. Miller stepped outside to light a cigar.

As dusk settled on Selma, the three men left the cafe to walk back to Brown Chapel. Reeb was nearest the curb, Miller in the middle of the sidewalk, and Olsen on the inside. They crossed an alley. ``Hey you, niggers,’’ someone called out. They saw a group of white men walking toward them from across the street. One held a club or a pipe.

The three white ministers whispered to one another, ``Just keep walking.’’

But the men kept coming. Just as Olsen turned to look, he saw one of them smash the club into Reeb’s head above his left ear, fracturing his skull. Reeb crumpled to the ground. Two or three men came after Miller and Olsen, punching and kicking them before scurrying off into the twilight. ``Now you know what it is like to be a real nigger,’’ one yelled. The assault was over in 30 seconds.

Miller and Olsen staggered back to Reeb, who was babbling incoherently. Afraid their attackers might reappear, they hoisted Reeb on their shoulders and carried him to a nearby black-owned insurance office. An ambulance brought him to a black infirmary, where a doctor examined him and said he must go to the hospital in Birmingham. Reeb squeezed Olsen’s hand tighter and tighter and then lost consciousness. His grip loosened.

Harrowing hours followed as Miller and Olsen tried to get Reeb to Birmingham. When their rickety ambulance got a flat tire on a dark country road, a carload of white men pulled up behind them and stopped. It was too risky to get out, so the ambulance driver rolled back into Selma on the tire rim to find another ambulance. The car followed them. Olsen started thinking they would be killed. It was 11 p.m. by the time they finally made it to a Birmingham hospital, nearly four hours after the beating. Reeb’s life was slipping away.

Word of the attack spread quickly, and Unitarian leaders scrambled to get to Marie before radio or TV did. The job of breaking the news fell to Jack Mendelsohn, the Reebs’ minister in Boston. Mendelsohn immediately called Marie and drove to Half Moon Street. All Mendelsohn could think was, she was right. Reeb should have stayed in Boston.

``That was pretty hard to take,’’ says Mendelsohn, who is now 92. Marie asked Mendelsohn to tell John, their eldest, who had just turned 13. ``I spent a lot of time with him and had the experience of watching him cry, really broken into tears,’’ Mendelsohn says. ``I along with him.’’

Marie and her father-in-law rushed to Birmingham to attend to Reeb’s final hours. Shortly before 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 11, his heart stopped, and the hospital made the announcement everyone had been bracing for: James Joseph Reeb was dead.

Outside Brown Chapel, a moan rose from those keeping vigil in the rain.

***

`Must the stripes of our flag be dyed a deeper red so that liberty and justice are ensured for all?’’

It was a question 1,000 students from Quincy High School put to President Johnson in a letter after Reeb’s death. Much of America was asking the same thing.

Around the country, the reaction to Reeb’s murder was swift and loud. At countless marches, vigils, and memorials, mourning mingled with rage. Some 25,000 people gathered on Boston Common. At its Friday concert, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played ``Dance of the Blessed Spirits,’’ the very piece with which it had marked John F. Kennedy’s assassination 16 months earlier. At a March 15 memorial service for Reeb in Brown Chapel, King turned his eulogy into a rallying cry: ``His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.’’

That night, in a special address to Congress, Johnson made an urgent case for voting rights. ``At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,’’ he said. ``So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.’’ The address was, says John Lewis, a black civil rights leader in Selma and now a US representative from Georgia, ``one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had delivered in modern time.’’

Over the next five months, moved by the deaths of Reeb and two others killed outside Selma, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, Congress passed and Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The law banned discriminatory voting practices and ended the disenfranchisement of millions of black voters.

But Selma wasn’t quite ready to follow the nation’s lead. Four men were arrested in Reeb’s killing, and three were indicted: Elmer L. Cook, 41, who ran a novelty company; William Stanley Hoggle, 36, a salesman; and his brother, Namon O’Neal ``Duck’’ Hoggle, 30, an auto mechanic. The prosecution of the men, however, was essentially over before it began.

For starters, the district attorney, Blanchard McLeod, was an ``adamant segregationist,’’ according to an internal FBI assessment. ``It cannot be anticipated from the attitude which he has displayed that he has any intention of forcefully and aggressively prosecuting the case,’’ the October 1965 memo concludes. Many potential witnesses in Selma were also unwilling to help; some even said Reeb deserved what he got. (Two days after he died, someone dropped leaflets over Selma from a plane, asking ``white citizens’’ to donate to the defense.)

McLeod and his deputy indeed mounted a weak case, suggesting publicly before the trial that convictions were unlikely, and then not challenging jurors they clearly should have, including one who was the brother of a defense witness. The defense attorney, Joe Pilcher, succeeded in casting doubt about his clients’ guilt, despite Miller and Olsen each identifying Elmer Cook as one of the attackers. Pilcher suggested that Reeb’s associates took their time getting him to the hospital because the civil rights movement needed a martyr. It took the all-white jury 97 minutes to set the men free.

A lot of people at the time believed Reeb died because he was carted around for hours after the beating, says Philip Henry Pitts, a 72-year-old white lawyer whose family has deep roots in Selma and state politics. But Faya Rose Toure, the lawyer and activist, says the injustice stings to this day. ``Reverend Reeb did not get a fair trial. His family did not get a fair trial,’’ she says. ``He was tried by people who were glad he was murdered.’’

***

The small used-car dealership sits just up the road from where Reeb was beaten, its worn red, white, and black sign — ``Bama Motors: Where Wheels Roll’’ — beckoning patrons onto its crowded lot. The owner is Duck Hoggle, the only defendant from the Reeb case still alive. On his website are stock photos of people enjoying their new cars. One shows a black family with a dog, all smiles in a green sport utility vehicle.

Indeed, as the Reeb case faded from memory, white and black families alike bought cars from Hoggle. Despite his acquittal, that was too much for Toure, who led pickets of the dealership and has used her weekday radio program, Faya’s Fire, to steer customers elsewhere. ``When someone came to the station with an ad from him, I said, `Hell no,’ ‘’ she says. ``He could offer us a million dollars, and we would not take an ad from Bama Motors.’’ (Hoggle was not at the dealership either time I visited in late May and did not return a subsequent phone call.)

Almost from the moment I arrived in Selma, I sensed an ambivalence toward dredging up these painful memories, which often, but not always, falls along racial lines. At the courthouse in search of records, I asked a clerk to look up the name of one of the defendants. ``Oh, you’re not talking about that case, are you?’’ the clerk, who was white, said, exasperation creeping into her voice. ``Now I know what you’re after.’’

But then at a memorial to Reeb on the site of his beating, I met Nathaniel Fair, 53, who teaches theology at a bible college in Mobile. Fair, who is black and grew up around Selma, believes the struggles of the civil rights era deserve more attention than they get today. ``What was accomplished in the ‘60s made what happened in 2008 possible,’’ he told me, referring to President Obama’s election. ``We all need to be educated about Reeb’s sacrifice.’’ `

`Selma is like a magnet,’’ says Alston Fitts, the city’s unofficial historian. ``It attracts guilt and blame from all sides, even when we haven’t done anything recently.’’ Fitts, who is white, says the local joke is that if the Second Coming of Christ happens in Selma, the first 30 seconds of TV coverage would still be about decades-old violence. ``A friend of mine said somebody asked him, `So what was it like to live in Selma?’ ‘’ Fitts says. ``He said, `OK, think of the worst thing you ever did in your life when you were drunk or young and stupid. . . . Well, imagine it’s on videotape, and it’s shown every year on your birthday just to remind everyone what scum you are, and you have a pretty good idea what it’s like to live in Selma.’’’

With the legacy of civil rights struggles still hanging over this and many other Southern cities, the FBI’s decision in 2006 to begin revisiting 1960s-era murder cases has reopened old wounds. For five years, the FBI’s civil rights cold case initiative has worked with journalists, lawyers, and activists to identify more than 100 pre-1970 racially motivated killings that remained unsolved. By last year, the FBI had closed about half of them. Closed rarely means prosecuted, though. In the vast majority of cases, the FBI concludes there’s nothing left it can do, because suspects and witnesses are dead or because it’s legally impossible. When that happens, the Department of Justice writes a letter that outlines the government’s work on the case. FBI agents then hand-deliver it to the victim’s family, a ceremonial gesture meant as an approximation of closure. It’s not a guilty verdict, but it’s something.

``I’d like for history to show that we did everything that we could,’’ says Cynthia Deitle, a supervisory special FBI agent in Boston who ran the cold case program until January. ``Every family deserves to know who killed their father, their uncle, their brother. I guess I want it to be right.’’

Janis McDonald, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at the Syracuse University College of Law, says there’s plenty of blame to go around. ``We all failed,’’ she says. ``The law failed. Judges failed. Lawyers failed. Newspaper reporters failed. Society failed by staying silent when the bombings were happening every night and the lynchings were going on. We all have some accountability.’’

But not everyone believes those failures deserve revisiting. Michael Jackson, the Selma-based district attorney for Alabama’s Dallas County, found that out when he decided to pursue the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson. On February 18, 1965, Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper named James Bonard Fowler after a protest march in Marion. The 72-year-old Fowler admitted as much in a newspaper interview in 2005, claiming he acted in self-defense.

``There were some people who felt that since [the case] was fortysome years old, that it should be left alone. And he was an older guy,’’ says Jackson, currently Alabama’s only black district attorney and no relation to Jimmie Lee Jackson. Even some supporters told Jackson just to steer clear; one black woman worried the white man couldn’t get a fair trial. ``And then you had others,’’ including some whites, Jackson says, ``who didn’t care how old he was, who felt like he needed to spend the rest of his life behind bars.’’ (Last year, Fowler pleaded guilty in exchange for a six-month prison sentence.)

``People have to know that if you fight for justice, that the system will protect you,’’ Toure says. Pitts wouldn’t dispute that, but he wishes everyone could just move on. ``The people in Selma now? They didn’t cause any of this stuff,’’ he says. ``It’s OK not to forget something, you know? Because it happened. And it’s hard to eradicate from a person’s mind. But forgiving is something that has to be done. And you’ll never have the blacks and some of the black radicals {ndash} they will never forgive.’’

***

After all the marchers went home, after all the memorial services drew to a close, after the pain began to ebb, James Reeb’s family was left to rebuild life without him.

A commercial plane had flown Reeb’s ashes home to Wyoming. Marie Reeb had returned to Boston on a jet provided by President Johnson. In the weeks that followed, sympathy and donations to the family poured in from around the world. A Nigerian doctor offered his condolences and enclosed $25. John Updike, then 33, read poems to a packed fund-raiser in an Ipswich barn. The generosity was so vast that Marie wrote the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, asking the church to work harder to raise funds for other families suffering as a result of their involvement in the civil rights movement.

The family packed up their lives in Boston and retreated to Wyoming. Marie eventually remarried. Over the next four decades, they endured anniversaries, commemorations, and other reminders of their loss. They were flooded with letters of support, but also with boxes’ worth of hate mail, says Reeb’s younger daughter, Anne, 51, who owns an entertainment company in Half Moon Bay, California. All of that has been hard for a family that prizes privacy.

But they all, in their own way, continue to carry Jim Reeb with them. His grandchildren have written about him in school and journeyed to Selma to mark the 40th anniversary of the struggle for voting rights. ``It’s very important for all of my family that our children grow up knowing who their grandfather was and what he stood for,’’ Anne says. Family members object to Reeb being singled out as a hero, which they say he never would have wanted. He believed in a cause, Anne says, and, along with many others, paid a high price for it.

For Reeb’s widow, now 82, word that the FBI had taken renewed interest in the case was cause for anxiety. She was uneasy at the prospect of returning to the public eye, or to court, her daughter says. But the Reebs knew all along it was unlikely anything further could be done. The family was at peace.

And then early last month, an FBI agent arrived at Marie’s door with a letter. ``We regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further with a federal criminal investigation,’’ it read. ``Please accept our sincere condolences.’’

With the law offering no recourse, Anne says, Marie understood that any justice that follows will be of a different sort.

``It’s now in God’s hands,’’ she told her daughter. ``It always has been.’’

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at shelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @swhelman.

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