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The view from the balcony

A witness's diary captures the torment and magic of James Reeb’s eulogy.
By Richard D. Leonard
May/June 2001 5.1.01

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This account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for James Reeb was adapted from a journal kept by the Rev. Richard D. Leonard during his 18 days in the Selma and Montgomery civil rights campaign of 1965. Leonard’s writings are among several UUs’ reminiscences of the event being prepared for publication by Skinner House Books.

March 15, 1965

The memorial service had been scheduled for 2 o’clock. Brown Chapel was full, but there was no sign of Dr. King or several other leaders who were expected. The temperature in the church continued to mount. I could see the distress on the faces of Unitarian Universalist friends who had just arrived in town as they kept looking at their watches, perhaps because they had planes to meet later in the day. For the rest of us, “seasoned veterans” of a week in Selma, we could have predicted that the service would start about 3 o’clock, in keeping with the pattern of announcing meetings to start ahead of the actual starting time so that everybody would have a chance to get there.

At 3 o’clock, Dr. King arrived amid cheers outdoors and then in the church. From the moment the service began, I found myself greatly agitated and sometimes furiously angry at the behavior of my white colleagues.

From the balcony I saw a sea of dignitaries clearly unrelated to the events in Selma.

Many faiths had come to pay tribute in this memorial to Jim Reeb. There was a certain uplift that came from the broad spectrum participating in this ecumenical service. But beyond that, until Dr. King himself spoke, it is hard to imagine a more jumbled collection of prepared prayers and speeches rattled off in a patronizing way. It was ecclesiasticism at its worst. James Reeb’s death was described as the most monstrous example of brutality, when in fact it was one more instance in a long series. Men who had not taken the time to meet any young people praised them for their courage. The men and women who had come “thousands of miles” for the memorial were extolled. I thought that it was not too difficult to come and go in 24 hours and have the vicarious experience of heroism through singing a few freedom songs.

When King began to speak, however, it suddenly seemed right that we should all be there. Everyone moved a bit in his or her seat when King asked rhetorically, “Who killed Jim Reeb?” He answered: A few ignorant men. He then asked, “What killed Jim Reeb?” and answered: An irrelevant church, an indifferent clergy, an irresponsible political system, a corrupt law enforcement hierarchy, a timid federal government, and an uncommitted Negro population.

He exhorted us to leave the ivory towers of learning and storm the bastions of segregation and see to it that the work Jim Reeb had started be continued so that the white South might come to terms with its conscience.

We rose to sing “We Shall Overcome” yet one more time, and close to a thousand voices united in a mighty chorus. The verse “Black and white together” took on a deeper meaning for us as we thought of Jimmy Lee Jackson and James Reeb united in the democracy of death. As we hummed a final chorus, the Hebrew prayer for the dead was intoned and then translated for us, with its phrase, “Peace for all with justice.”

Afterward, a new figure appeared at the microphone to make the electrifying announcement that the federal court had upheld our right to march to the Dallas County Courthouse and hold a service there.

A mighty cheer went up, and we tumbled out of the chapel to form our lines once more. Close to 3,000 marchers lined up on Sylvan Street. This time, as we drew up to the police presence, we were told we would be permitted to march if we stayed on the sidewalks where possible and marched three abreast. This we were willing to do, and the procession was on its way. We were escorted all the way by police cars while angry people muttered on the other side of the street. We arrived without serious incident at the courthouse.

That evening, the sense of victory was heavy in the air. A march on Montgomery no longer seemed like an unrealizable dream. Also that night, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. By 9 o’clock every television set in the Carver Houses, the public housing project where many of us stayed with host families, was banked with as many persons as could squeeze into the room. Johnson began: “At times history and fate meet in a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”

Forty-five minutes later he concluded his ringing address, in which he had urged Congress to help him pass a new voting rights bill. Everyone in the room where we had stood throughout was crying, men and women, old and young, black and white.


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