Reckoning with history

The Rev. Orloff Miller, Marie Reeb, and the Rev. Clark Olsen put their arms around each other

After fifty years, the families and friends of three civil rights martyrs return to Selma, still weighing the price they had to pay.

Image: The Rev. Orloff Miller, Marie Reeb, and the Rev. Clark Olsen put their arms around each other March 7, 2015, at the site of the murder of the Rev. James Reeb in Selma. (© Amy K. Nelson)

© Amy K. Nelson


An earlier version of this article appeared in Matter on March 11, 2015, and is published here in adapted form with permission. 

The beige ballroom in Birmingham, Alabama, is filled with mostly white people listening to the daughter of a white woman who was murdered in 1965 by the KKK.

Penny Herrington and her sister Sally Liuzzo have just accepted a Courageous Love Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association honoring their mother, Viola, one of the martyrs of the Selma voting rights struggle. Viola, a mother of five, got in her car and drove from Detroit seven tumultuous days after a brutal police attack on peaceful black marchers in Selma. She spent just over a week in Alabama, helping shuttle marchers between Selma and Montgomery until the night after the final rally at the state capitol in Montgomery, when the KKK chased her down Highway 80 and shot her in the head execution-style.

Standing at the dais with a spotlight beaming down on her face, Herrington is about to encapsulate the conflicted meaning of this weekend for a select group in the room. Along with Viola Liuzzo, two men were murdered in 1965, one black, one white. Their three families have lived in relative anonymity and under the shadow of Selma for fifty years. All that pain, and the different ways in which it has manifested itself over generations, is packed tightly into this ballroom for the UU Living Legacy Project’s commemoration of 1965.

Herrington takes a breath, then acknowledges how deep divisions remain in this country without having to ever say the words Ferguson, Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court, Shelby County, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice. Without having to say Selma. “It feels like we’re going backwards,” she says. “I am going to keep fighting this fight until the last breath in my body.”

What is your identity when a large part of your life is defined by someone being murdered during one of the most important moments in civil rights history? How do you measure that loss today, in 2015, when the movement around it seems to have stalled? What, for that matter, do you do with your life after history has claimed someone close to you?

If you are a widow, like Marie Reeb, the wife of the Rev. James Reeb, a white minister who was fatally beaten the night after he arrived in Selma, you quietly move on, raise your children and never revisit the time and place of your husband’s murder. If you’re the children, you think of that place and those people in that town as the bogeyman. You are haunted and scared of that place, and by people you encounter who carry even the slightest Southern twang. You start to define us vs. them.

If you are Emma Jean Jackson, the sister of a young black voting rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by a state trooper, you work hard to feel that your brother died for a larger cause, but you see everything around you suddenly reverting, as if 1965 wants to remind everyone of its return.

And if you are the men remembered as heroes because you survived the attack that claimed a martyr? You live with guilt, you move to another country, you remarry, repackage your life into anything but 1965.

And when the fiftieth anniversary arrives, all the ghosts and bogeymen and guilt and hero worship and pain, all of it, travels with you back to Selma, to the place you visit under the cover of your loved one’s martyrdom. And when you get there you’re asked to confront the hardest question of all: Was it worth it?

Everyone has taken a different path back to Selma. But the two survivors of the attack on James Reeb are back to see his family.

In 1965, the Rev. Orloff Miller, a white UU minister working for the UUA in Boston, hurried to Selma after seeing the horrific images on television of Bloody Sunday: black men and women being beaten and tear-gassed after marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He flew from Boston with Reeb, and was attacked with him and the Rev. Clark Olsen—another white UU minister—just two nights after Bloody Sunday. Reeb died from a severe brain injury from a blow to his head.

Miller says he felt guilty for years. He had stepped outside the café where the three men had dinner to smoke a cigar just minutes before their assailants approached. He thinks that being spotted outside a black restaurant tipped them off. After the attack, he took out a small green notebook and took meticulous notes, a play-by-play of everything, including the ambulance ride, the flat tire, and then later the funeral, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. He wrote about everything, including the racial epithet that was uttered right before one of the assailants beat Jim Reeb with a club. He has the notebook with him in Birmingham, fifty years later. Miller last spoke to Reeb’s widow in 1975, on the tenth anni­versary. Olsen hasn’t seen her since a hospital visit when Reeb was already brain-dead. All three are in their eighties and have trekked here to restart their story, to redefine what Selma means, to see each other.

Olsen always regretted running from the attackers. In recent years he has tried to come to terms with his place in history, speaking to students whenever he can, going back to Selma. The trauma of that night haunts him; it was pure agony getting Reeb to a hospital. The men were terrified for their lives, afraid to ask anyone white in town for help. They took Reeb to a black doctor who said he had to get to a hospital. An ambulance gave them a ride, but a flat tire on an abandoned road halted the journey, with a car filled with white men trailing them. The ambulance drove back to town on the rim. It took the trio four hours to get to Birmingham, a lifetime for someone with a brain injury. Olsen held Reeb’s hand throughout, while Miller took copious notes; he was that present in the moment to know how crucial the details would be for any trial, although an all-white jury would later acquit the attackers. Olsen and Reeb held hands until Reeb lost consciousness. “So really,” says Anne Reeb, one of Jim’s daughters, “Clark felt his last human touch of life.”

Miller and his son, Orloff Jr., have been estranged for six years. The elder Miller has always leaned extremely left politically; he had Jr. burning flags by age four, and was active in movements long before they became stamps. Then he met a German woman and twenty-six years ago began a new life overseas. He recently had brain surgery; he also has Parkinson’s disease. His doctor told him not to travel. Father and son had begun communicating more regularly recently and Jr. offered to visit Selma in his father’s place. Miller left the States for good six years ago, planning on never coming back. He changed his mind in November. “When I heard the Reebs would be here, I had to be here,” Miller tells me. “I had wanted to see them once again and see what had happened in their lives.”

“I think he’s here to spite his health,” says Orloff Jr. “That’s how much it means to him. It’s a defining moment for his life. It’s something he’s been working through himself ever since.”

Orloff Jr. is a soft-spoken man who works as a historical archivist. He was nine years old in 1965 and remembers seeing his father’s black-and-blue beaten face on television, terrified at what had happened. When Miller flew back to Boston, Orloff Jr. was there with his mother to greet him on the tarmac, the flood of camera lights still a distinct memory. For decades, Selma and the people who represented Selma engendered fear and mistrust and helped build strong biases in Orloff Jr.’s mind. “If little kids of my generation had the bogeyman that took the form of Russians with fur hats, [after Selma] they took the form of [a] Southern drawl with a billy club,” he says. “It’s something you have to unlearn and something you have to let go of. I’m not afraid of Selma now. Selma is another American place.” He feels uncomfortable with the celebration of the weekend, but recognizes the significance of his father’s return. As he tries to eat his lunch in a loud, crowded hotel ballroom hosting a reunion, Orloff Jr. puts his fork down. He begins to cry and quietly says that if his dad gets on the plane home to Germany, if he dies, “if I don’t see him again, I know he’ll be happy. I’ll be happy.”

King had sent out a Western Union tele­gram the night after Bloody Sunday ap­pealing to the nation’s clergy to come to Selma and join the next march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Miller, Olsen, and Reeb were three of dozens of Unitarian Univer­salists who answered the call.

The Reebs lived in Roxbury, a black neighborhood in Boston, and had four young children. Marie Reeb was terrified when Jim left; she didn’t want him in Selma. He told his wife he couldn’t stand around and watch people get beaten. “I have to go,” he said. “I’ll be home in a day.” Jim kissed Marie goodbye on the curb at Logan Airport, the last time she saw her husband conscious.

As soon as she heard about the attack, she flew down to Birmingham and went straight to the hospital. “When I saw him lying there in the hospital bed next to the machines, I knew he was already gone,” she says. “I really believed him when he said, ‘I’ll be home soon,’ and here he was, lifeless.”

After his death, Marie moved back to her native Wyoming, later remarried, and never revisited his death, or Selma. Over the years it had been tele­graphed to Miller and Olsen not to reach out. In fifty years, Marie Reeb had contact only twice with the two men who survived, both times with Miller.

Emma Jean Jackson isn’t sure how to feel. She’s had to live with the death of her brother Jimmie Lee as a footnote, an afterthought; it was Reeb’s death, not Jackson’s, that President Johnson acknowledged to a national television audience when introducing the Voting Rights Act to Congress. But it was Jackson’s murder in nearby Marion by a white police officer, who shot him in the stomach as he was protecting his mother during a peaceful voting-rights march, that sparked the Bloody Sunday march. Jackson isn’t sure it was worth the cost of her brother’s life. “Sometimes I have a feeling deep down that it was not worth it, because the same thing keeps happening over and over again,” she says. “It was maybe like a Band-Aid then. To me it has festered all over again.”

“I believe it was his destiny,” Anne Reeb tells me. She was four years old when her father died. It was difficult not having a father, and she wondered how her life would have been different had he survived. But as she learned more about him, “my heart was filled with a resolve that he was on a path all his life that led him to Selma.”
She said it was his passion and love for the cause that made him willing to die for it. “I can only love him for that courage and strong conviction. The voting-rights marches paved the way for the first African-American president. So yes, for me, his daughter, it was worth it.” But for many, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to repeal part of the Voting Rights Act is reprehensible. “It’s an insult to my family and so many others who stood up for love and are still standing,” Anne says.

It’s early in the afternoon on Saturday and Clark Olsen has been going non-stop. Olsen lives in Asheville, North Carolina, now. He’s returned to Selma more than the others, but it’s always emotional. He has just been interviewed live on CNN in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and now he’s watching President Obama speak just blocks away from where they were attacked. He says his mind wandered to Jim during the speech. “I think what’s been celebrated today needed to be celebrated and will inspire a lot of people,” he says. “I’m really hopeful about that. It ain’t gonna happen without a lot of work, and I hope to contribute to that as long as I can.”

As he walks and talks he says he has hope; that it may take ten to twenty years, but there will be more tangible change, that rights won’t continue to be stripped, that institutional disenfranchisement won’t continue forever. He says as long as he’s here, he’s going to keep trying to help the cause, to let people know who Jim was, why he died. Why they all came to Selma. Why they all came back.

The spot where Jim Reeb was murdered is now an empty lot next to a bail-bonds building. A mural and a marker adorn the block at Selma and Washington Streets. It’s just after 5 p.m. on Saturday—a few hours after Obama’s speech at the bridge—and Marie Reeb walks to the site for the first time in her life. Her son John, who was 12 years old when his father died, embraces his mother as she cries. The entire family—17 total, spanning three generations—collapses into one another, collectively crying, grieving. They lay a wreath, and locals and strangers—most of whom are black—gather in a circle around them as they read a dedication to their father and grandfather. Marie stands between Miller and Olsen, the two men embracing their friend’s widow. They don’t say much. “I couldn’t remember and neither could she whether we had talked in the hospital fifty years ago,” Olsen says. “We didn’t share much words, just the way she put her arms around me and she kept insisting on that. That was really nice.”

It’s Sunday morning at Brown Chapel AME Church, where a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside with Liuzzo’s, Reeb’s, and Jackson’s names inscribed next to his. King’s son, Martin III, addresses the room that includes the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Attorney General Eric Holder. Olsen sits with UUA President Peter Morales.

It’s the same room where King eulogized Reeb fifty years ago, the same room where he said that “the greatest tribute we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish.” And nearly a lifetime later, King’s son picks up the baton as a large group outside the church watches on a Jumbotron.

“I’m not feeling like a tribute right now,” Martin III says.

“I find it challenging to celebrate. . . . You think that we don’t understand that much of what happened in this town they’re trying to rescind in a new and more polished way? I would have never guessed that our Supreme Court would dismantle the Voting Rights Act. The language of Jim Crow has turned into the court capers of James Crow Jr. Esquire. The results are the same, and that’s disenfranchisement. Today we shouldn’t be celebrating. We can’t celebrate yet.”

Marie Reeb is 85 years old. She has gotten through the weekend, visited the site of her husband’s murder, reunited with the men who survived and with the town she and her family will always be linked to. She has left Selma, and on a bus back to Atlanta Sunday night, her daughter Anne asks her if it was all worth it. She still speaks in present tense when talking about Jim. “When I think of my children, I find it hard to part with my husband and send him off into danger,” she says. “That is very hard for me. He was their light. But for the world, yes, it was worth it. Jim belonged to the world. And he’s in God’s hands now.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in Matter on March 11, 2015, and is published here in adapted form with permission.