If UU World were a flashier magazine, this issue’s cover would sport a big headline that begins, Exclusive!!! That’s because until now, no one has ever published the eulogy that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered for James Reeb, the UU minister whose 1965 murder in Selma, Alabama, helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act.
We are honored to present the eulogy as part of a package of articles that shed new light on three civil rights martyrs who gave their lives to extend voting rights to African Americans in the South. You can be among the first ever to read a transcription of King’s moving eulogy (PDF), but first, let me tell you about the detective work that made this possible.
When UUA President the Rev. John Buehrens told his staff that a memorial to the Selma martyrs was planned for UUA headquarters, he mentioned King’s eulogy. We asked the UUA’s archivist and director of information, John Hurley, to try to find a copy.
First he checked the UUA’s files. Nothing. Marshall Hawkins, a divinity student working in Hurley’s office, called Boston University, which maintains a major collection of King’s papers. Nothing. Hawkins then checked a comprehensive inventory of King’s documents that scholars use. It said the King Center in Atlanta had a draft, but after two weeks of checking, the center concluded that it did not.
Many people would have given up at this point, but Hurley and Hawkins, joined now by their associate, public information specialist Bea deMuinck Keizer, pressed on. The inventory of King’s papers mentions a sound recording of the eulogy, saying it was “in private hands” in the Carl Benkert Collection. Internet searches turned up other Benkert references but no contact information. So deMuinck Keizer checked people-finder programs on the Internet. No luck. Hawkins decided to try one more thing—a tedious state-by-state search of phone book listings through another Web site. At the end of a long day, he’d checked all 50 states and had found only four Carl Benkert listings; deMuinck Keizer started dialing, and on the first try found the Carl Benkert we wanted.
“Is that amazing?” deMuinck Keizer said. “We were jumping up and down.”
In 1965, Benkert was a young Catholic in a group accompanying a priest from Ann Arbor who responded to King’s call for clergy to join him in Selma after the voting rights march to Montgomery was brutally turned back. Benkert had a tape recorder and captured all he could, knowing that history was in the making.
“When I spoke to Carl,” deMuinck Keizer said, “it was like he’d been waiting for someone to call. He was very receptive.” Benkert rushed us a copy of the tape.
The introductory essay draws from materials made public only recently to bring new understanding about the three martyrs’ meaning not only to the civil rights movement but also to Unitarian Universalism. It is the first major article for the magazine by Christopher L. Walton, our new senior editor. Chris received an M.Div. degree last year from Harvard Divinity School and has worked at the UUA in several roles before this auspicious magazine debut.
Finally, please cross your fingers with us. UU World is embarking on a test of selling copies in major bookstores that, if successful, will make our faith more widely known. This requires a shift in our production schedule; Learn more.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of UU World (page 2).
- Unfinished journey Selma 1965
- Timeline of the Selma civil rights campaign
- Martin Luther King Jr.'s previously unpublished eulogy for James Reeb (May/June 2001; PDF)
- Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.'s eulogy for James Reeb.Recorded in Selma, Alabama, by Carl Benkert on March 15, 1965.
- Memoir of King's eulogy for James Reeb
- Witness to Reeb's death looks back