January 12, 2020: Martyrs, White Lies, and Us

Story

What is Integrity? Integrity means doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s hard to know what that is. 

Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s really clear what the right thing is, but we’re too scared to actually do it. We’re scared we’ll be alone, or scared we’ll make a mistake, or be embarrassed, or maybe even get hurt. 

I want to tell you a story today about one of us. He was a UU, a minister named James Reeb (right). He lived here in Boston. He did the right thing. Even when it was scary. And it turned out to be really important in the history of this country. And we’re really proud of him. 

As you know, there was a long time in this country when black people were not treated fairly. And it’s still going on now. But back in the 1960s, in the South, black people were not even allowed to vote in elections. Yes, technically they had that right, but local and state governments there had put in place lots of tests they had to do, tests that they only gave to black people, that kept them from voting. It was really unfair. 

So Martin Luther King led people to protest, to demand equal voting rights. Lots of brave black people rose up in response. Many of the white people in the South didn’t want things to change, they didn’t want black people to have a say in government, or to be treated better over all. So when the black people marched, the white people attacked them. Some black people were killed. 

Sometimes the TV news showed these marches and attacks. One night, Rev. Reeb and his wife Marie saw this on TV and were very upset by it. The next day Martin Luther King sent a message asking all the leaders of all the religions in the country to come down to Selma, Alabama, and help, to march for what was right. Along with about 100 other UU ministers — just in Boston alone — James Reeb decided to go. 

Many of the white people in the South were angry that the protests were getting attention and that people from all over the country were coming down to help the black protesters. They did not want change. 

The next night, Rev. Reeb met up with two other UU ministers for dinner. Their names were Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen. Outsiders like them, people who had come to help the protesters, were not welcome in the white restaurants in Selma. The three ate at a black restaurant that night. 

As they left the restaurant, a group of white men attacked them. One had a big stick and he hit James Reeb on his head, really hard. He fell to the ground. The other two ministers helped him get to an ambulance, but two days later, at a hospital, James Reeb died.

Even though several black people had died in this struggle without much notice, now the TV news featured Reeb’s death and people across the country were very upset by it. The President spoke about it on TV and pushed Congress to pass a very important law that would give everyone voting rights that couldn’t be taken away.

A few months later, three white men went on trial for hurting James Reeb, but, because the angry white people in town had spread lies about what happened, and people believed them, the all-white, all-male jury decided the men were innocent. 

So a good man died, and the truth about it got buried. But his death helped to shine a light on the civil rights struggle. It helped Congress to see how wrong the laws were and that they had a duty to change them. 

Integrity means doing the right thing. 

Sometimes it’s hard to know what that is. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s really clear what the right thing is, and we just need to have the courage to actually do it. And our faith can give us that courage.

Reading

(Play audio.) From James Reeb’s final sermon at All Souls Church, Washington, DC. July 1964.

“If you came this morning hoping to hear a message of hope, well, in many ways I will have to discourage you.

There were many people who seemed to feel that once we had the march on Washington, once we’d had the Civil Rights Bill, things were just inevitably going to be easier, that somehow we’d done it. And I say to you only that I think this is the most dangerous kind of self-delusion, that we’ve not in any way “done it,” and that just to the extent that we think we have, we’re going to be dismayed when we find out that we have not.

And just to the extent that we permit ourselves to be emotionally dismayed, we ourselves as individuals will in some small way add to this thing that is known as the ‘backlash,’ which is real, and I feel in many ways growing, and in many ways possibly stronger. than we surmise as yet.”

Susanne: This is from Episode 7 of “White Lies,” the NPR podcast on the murder of James Reeb that debuted last summer. This episode gives us a flavor of Reeb as a person. Next the two journalists interview UU Rev. Ron Engel, who worked with Reeb at All Souls DC.

He says, “Jim would not have wanted to be remembered as a martyr. We need to remember him as a person, put him in context.”

Engel remembers that at first Reeb was happy in his role as asst minister at All Souls, which is one of our largest, most diverse, and most politically active congregations. But over time he grew restless there. Reeb felt called to work at the grass-roots, as a community organizer.

He began a job search that brought him in 1964, to Boston and his dream job. Under the American Friends Service committee, the Quakers, Reeb began working on low-income housing issues out of a storefront in Roxbury, which was already then a majority-black area. And Jim bought a house there. It was important to Jim for his family to live in the neighborhood too and for his four kids to go to the neighborhood schools.

Here’s Rev Ron Engel, Reeb’s friend, reading from a letter Jim sent him in the fall of 1964. (Play audio.)

“It was difficult to find this house, almost no one wants to encourage you to move here.

one lady asked if I was crazy when I told her I really wanted to move into the neighborhood. The children are in school and in general happy. John wanted to help integrate his class. Some gal in Washington asked if I really wanted my children to go to school with Negroes, I said. Yes of course all children are lucky who integrate schools.

Marie is fine, busy getting the house in order. I am faced every day to stretch my mind. There are new problems new ideas, and new experiences to deal with. I have seized the bull by the horns. I am doing what seems important, and let the damn torpedos come.”

Sermon: Martyrs, White Lies, and Us

All these years I’ve been a UU, almost 30 now, I’ve thought of Jim Reeb in much the same way as most Americans think of MLK, especially those like me who are too young to remember these men alive.

We use the word martyr or saint. We put them up on pedestals, revere them for their choices and sacrifices.

And that I think creates a distance, a safe distance. That person, that martyr, is somehow different from me, somehow special, chosen by Fate for this saintly path. So I am exonerated.

As long as I venerate that person, show him or her proper respect. I’m doing the right thing.

But that isn’t what these men wanted. Reeb and King didn’t want worship. They wanted change. They wanted justice. They wanted you to stand up in your integrity, stand up for what is right.

In the last 6 months of his life, as you just heard, James Reeb was living and working here in Boston, putting himself and his family on the line, drawing attention to problems that still persist here.

Income Inequality, poor living conditions for low-income people, segregated schools.

In the last week of his life, up here in Boston, Reeb was chest-deep in a public battle with the Boston fire department. In fact he worried out loud that going to Selma might look to some like he was running from that fight.

You see a couple months before, on December 30, 1964, a blaze had brought down a 29-unit apartment building in Roxbury. Four people died, including a mother and two young children. She had saved her youngest by holding him tight as she jumped from the fifth floor. Her body cushioned the fall.

Reeb knew fire codes were a real problem in Boston, especially inadequate fire exits in public housing. On March 3, he met with asst Boston Fire Chief John E. Clougherty. He told him that in addition to making a report on the fire, he (Reeb) was going to form a citizens’ committee to study the fire codes.

Clougherty fought back. “You’re no expert,” he said, and he accused Reeb of publicity-seeking. “If you’re wrong,” Clougherty said to Reeb, “I will murder you.”

Reeb shot back, “How do you murder people?”

In his work log, Reeb later wrote, “This set off a volcano.”

Clougherty apparently thought Reeb was accusing him of killing people, and he got more angry, but Reeb stayed calm and just asked him what he’d meant by the remark. In in his log later, Reeb requested that a photographer go take more photos of the burned building.

“So long as I may be murdered,” Reeb commented, “I thought we should supplement our evidence in every way.”

That was to be Reeb’s last log entry before he left for Selma on March 8.

Less that 24 hours after he arrives in Selma, the attack happens.

Reeb, Miller, and Olsen have been warned to stay away from the “white” establishments in town, so they stay in the homes of black families and eat in black restaurants.

That night, upon leaving Walker’s Cafe, the three step out into the twilight and make a fatal mistake. Instead of turning left to stay in the black side of town, they turn right.

Just a few steps later they are accosted by a group of white men shouting racial slurs at them. One of the assailants swings a club at Reeb’s head. He falls to the ground. Olsen and Miller get kicked and punched.

Finally they manage to get Reeb to his feet. He is still conscious. The three walk four blocks to an insurance agency, which is the headquarters of the civil rights protesters. They know better than to go to the police station, just across the street.

A black driver arrives in the town’s black ambulance, which also doubles as a hearse, and since they have been warned away from the white hospital in town, he drives them to the tiny black infirmary. The doctor there takes an x-ray and decides that Reeb needs a neurologist. The closest one is in Birmingham, two hours away by car.

At this point, Reeb loses consciousness.

A police car escorts the ambulance out of town but no further. Two other cars full of menacing white people follow them, jeering. The ambulance gets a flat tire. They dare not get out of the car to change it. They drive on the rim back toward Selma, looking for a place where the black driver can make a phone call to ask for a new ambulance.

Finally they arrive at a radio station where he used to work, and the driver goes inside. The beaten ministers stay in the ambulance, hearing jeers and threats from outside.

Finally the second ambulance arrives and the group heads to Birmingham again. Instead of two hours, the trip takes 3 and a half. By the time they arrive at University hospital, the team there says there is no hope. They phone Marie in Roxbury.

This timeline proves really important, because it becomes the center of a web of lies that helps both to get the killers acquitted and to bury the real truth of that night for over 50 years.

These are the White Lies of the podcast’s title.

Three men are arrested for the assault, but the trial is a sham.

First of all, the prosecutor in this case has previously been charged with voter suppression, so his loyalties are clear. Before the trial even begins, he tells reporters that there’s little chance of conviction because he has a weak case. Second, they choose an all-white, all-male jury, many of whom have close, lifelong connections to the three defendents. Third, the defense brings forward 150 witnesses, many of whom provide alibis for the men. Others say there was no flat tire.

The defense then circulates a theory. Reeb was conscious when we went into the ambulance, so not so badly hurt. But by the time he arrives in Birmingham, he ’s beyond hope. How’s that possible?

Maybe it wasn’t the beating that killed him, maybe it was the other two ministers in the ambulance.

The movement needed a martyr, they said. So Miller and Olsen made one.

Can you believe it? Two mild-mannered UU ministers just like me, killed their colleague in the back of an ambulance, just for the publicity? It’s outrageous.

But this story earned the defense an acquittal, and even now plenty of folks in Selma still believe it. Because their people, people they love and trust have passed it down through generations. The story is easier to live with than the truth, which is based on the testimony of outsiders, troublemakers from the North.

Outlandish as it is, the story worked because the white people in Selma and throughout the South — and yes, even in the North too — were committed to the ideology of white supremacy. At that point, it had been woven into the culture for hundreds of years. It upheld Slavery and Jim Crow and undergirded whatever self-esteem poor whites had.

They couldn’t and wouldn’t allow a chink that armor.

Despite the fact that —

  • a crowd of people saw the assault
  • by the next day, the whole town knew who did it
  • Both Miller and Olsen clearly identify Elmer Cook, the assailant with the club
  • Cook has a violent history and 17 previous assault charges.

The men are found not guilty and they go back to their lives as if nothing happened. And the truth is buried.

It amazes me. And it reminds me of some of the whopping lies we hear from the Trump administration. And some people out there believe them, because they fit within an established and comfortable worldview. I see better now how that works, how susceptible we all are to confirmation bias.

The Left wants to believe that the Truth itself is enough, that Truth will win out eventually, that thinking people will come around. But will they? And do we have the time to wait?

In the podcast, it took 54 years, and the truth came out only because the two reporters came back and start digging. They finally found an eye witness whom, over a period of months, they convinced finally to tell them the truth, on record. She does, and that leads them to find a fourth assailant, who is amazingly, still alive.

I won’t give away the ending of the podcast, in the hope that you might listen to it. It’s still up on the NPR website, and hearing all these voices in their context is worthwhile. Especially at the end, when the descendants of Elmer Cook reach out to the Reeb family.

For me, though, the big lesson is about the White Lies.

To what extent are the White Lies of white supremacy still active? To what extent do they still permeate our whole culture? To what extent are the problems Jim Reeb was working on in Roxbury still with us?

I mean, 54 years later, IS Boston integrated? Are we living in neighborhoods that are accessible to all people? Are we sending our kids to fully integrated schools?

“I say to you only that I think this is the most dangerous kind of self-delusion,” James Reeb preached in 1964, presciently.

“that we’ve not in any way “done it,” and that just to the extent that we think we have, we’re going to be dismayed when we find out that we have not.

The basis of any functioning democracy, Reeb well knew, is Voting Rights. Without the right to vote, blacks in the South could never have a voice, raise their standard of living, get rid of Jim Crow, or integrate schools. And as I said in the children’s story earlier, it was Reeb’s death that finally became the catalyst for monumental change. It pushed LBJ and congress to pass the Voting Rights Bill that King wanted. Though black activists had died previously, it was Reeb’s death that stirred the nation.

Now 50 years later, that same Voting Rights Bill is under constant attack from the Right. Since 2011, 41 states have passed 180 laws restricting voting. 34 states have photo ID laws.17 states demand proof of citizenship. The 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby vs. Holder cleared the path for more such laws.

The Washington Post reports that just between 2016 and 2018, a total of 16 million voters were purged from the roles. In many states these have been shown to be disproportionately African American and Hispanic voters.

If we are to have a chance to turn the tide in 2020, then voter registration and activation must be a central focus. For example just yesterday I saw a new study that says 1 in 5 LGBTQ voters is not registered — but if just that group were activated, it could be enough to put any of the Democratic frontrunners over the top in key Midwestern states.

This is the kind of strategy we’ll be discussing this afternoon, as we join in the national campaign called “UU the Vote.” Here in this sanctuary at 4, we’ll join the live webinar launch party for about an hour, then we’ll debrief and plan out what our church can commit to do this coming year.

It’s so important. It’s that political battle of our time, and we can’ t afford to lose. We can’t let the Right’s web of lies grow wider and deeper. We can’t let them build up further a racial hierarchy, walls of hate, and continuous wars that only benefit the rich, only escalate the economic inequality that is tearing us apart.

In the words of our Opening Hymn this morning —

Once to every soul and nation 

comes the moment to decide,

in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side:

James Reeb didn’t want to be a martyr, put up on a pedestal. He was a regular guy, a UU just like the rest of us. A guy who, at the right moment, summoned the integrity to do the right thing, even though it was scary. Because his faith gave him courage. Because the word Love hung around his neck.

And Reeb’s decision changed the history of our nation.

Let us, in the months to come, in the battle of our decade, summon the integrity to stand up like James Reeb. Against racism, against inequality, against voter suppression, against White Lies.

May we, with him, in the months to come, have the courage to say

I have seized the bull by the horns.

I am doing what seems important,

and let the damn torpedos come.

Amen.

 

Sources:

“White Lies” NPR podcast

Jimmie Lee & James: Two Lives, Two Deaths, and the Movement that Changed America