Casper man reconnects with father’s civil rights past 50 years later

by James Chilton
published March 15, 2015
Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Growing up, Steve Reeb never knew his father.

He knew of his father, of course – all his life, he had been told that the Rev. James Reeb was a hero, a martyr to the civil rights movement.

A Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, the elder Reeb lost his life in Selma, Alabama, where he was fatally beaten by white segregationists. This was at the height of the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965, when thousands of demonstrators walked the 54-mile highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital in support of equal voting rights.

James Reeb’s death on March 11, 1965, led to a national outcry against the Jim Crow laws of the South, and just days later, President Lyndon Johnson would convene a nationally televised joint session of Congress to address the need for the Voting Rights Act.

That historic bill would be signed into law five months later. But for Steve Reeb, then just 3 years old and living in Casper, the civil rights victory did little to fill the now-gaping hole in his life.

“As a young child, I knew what he did, and I knew what the results were,” Reeb said. “But when you’re a young boy, you’re dealing with questions like, ‘Who’s my dad? Who’s going to take me to play baseball?’ I just kind of swept it under the rug.”

For half a century, Reeb was quiet about his father’s life and legacy. But this year, the Cheyenne physician saw an opportunity to finally learn just who his dad was.

“I knew the 50th anniversary of Selma was coming up,” Reeb said. “My daughter would come home from school – she was 8 – and she would talk about Jim Crow laws, segregation in the South, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, she doesn’t even know about her own grandfather.’

“At that point, I was compelled to go,” Reeb added.

And he wasn’t the only one. In all, 17 members of Reeb’s family made the trip to Selma earlier this month to take part in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the marches. The journey was as personal as it was educational, as Reeb was able to get in touch with some of his father’s personal friends and fellow activists.

Those included Unitarian pastors Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller, who survived the same assault that claimed James Reeb’s life. Olsen and Miller took Steve Reeb to the spot where the attack took place, walking him through the event.

“They met us at the site where they were walking out of the restaurant, and we took a right and started walking down the sidewalk,” Steve Reeb said. “They said they saw four or five guys coming out of a store across the street who came up behind them, and they told themselves to quicken the pace.”

One of the men yelled out a racial epithet, and then, Reeb said, “One of the pastors turned around just in time to see a man swing a club at my dad’s left temple. It was over in 30 seconds, and they ran.”

The Rev. Audette Fulbright, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, also was in Selma for the 50th anniversary. By coincidence, she had personally studied under Olsen in Asheville, North Carolina, and was familiar with the story of the attack on James Reeb.

“A lot was going on, and they couldn’t get emergency services,” Fulbright said. “The ambulance didn’t take them to the nearest hospital, it took them away.”

It was hours before James Reeb was admitted to a hospital in Birmingham, where he died two days after the assault. On March 15, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a eulogy for Reeb at Brown’s Chapel in Selma.

“He demonstrated the conscience of the nation,” King said. “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.”

During his time in Selma, Steve Reeb also got the chance to speak with Ron Engel, who had been a personal friend of his father’s before the Selma marches.

“He gave us an account of the personal aspect, the humanistic side of my father that he knew two years before he was killed,” Reeb said. “He had written down quite extensive thoughts, and hearing his words was equally as important as hearing the Unitarian ministers describe the last walk.”

Both Reeb and Fulbright were present to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when marchers were beaten by police as they attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. But where only a few hundred marchers crossed then, Reeb and Fulbright were joined by tens of thousands of others.

“President Obama and his daughters, their crossing of the bridge shows the great progress that’s been made, while at the same time, there’s still so much work to do,” Fulbright said. “This is a pivotal moment in history, just like 1963 and 1965 – but also just like every day is. We are called as Dr. King was called, and we are called to the same exact work.”

For Reeb, the trip helped to bring closure to an issue he had left unresolved for half a century.

Seeing the crowds and speaking with the people who helped change history, he said he came away from Selma with a newfound appreciation of his father’s life, and the legacy that he and so many others have left for today’s America.

“It was huge because I’d been avoiding this thing for 50 years, and I wish I would’ve done it earlier,” Reeb said. “I can see enough change, and I can see enough people that know of him and know of what he was – what he fought for and believed in, and the courage it must take to come to Selma, a place from which you might not return.

“I’m very proud, along with all the other people who are proud of him too,” Reeb added. “You can never say it was just one person, but he did have a part. And I do understand the significance of it more.”

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