“Getting in the Way” or “He Decided to Go” or “Reeb, Racism and Risk”

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“Become friends with people who aren’t your age. Hang out with people whose first language isn’t the same as yours. Get to know someone who doesn’t come from your social class. This is how you see the world. This is how you grow.”


This is a story written by a Welsh poet named Hugh Price Hughes:
It is the tale of a man who might have been I, for I dreamed one time of journeying to that metropolis. I arrived early one morning. It was cold, there were flurries of snow on the ground and as I stepped from the train to the platform I noticed that the baggageman and the redcap were warmly attired in heavy coats and gloves, but oddly enough, they wore no shoes. My initial impulse was to ask the reason for this odd practice, but repressing it I passed into the station and inquired the way to the hotel. My curiosity, however, was immediately enhanced by the discovery that no one in the station wore any shoes. Boarding the street-car, I saw that my fellow-travelers were likewise barefoot, and upon arriving at the hotel I found the bellhop, the clerk and the habitués of the place were all devoid of shoes.
Unable to restrain myself longer, I asked the ingratiating manager what the practice meant.
“What practice?” said he.
“Why,” said I, pointing to his bare feet, “Why don’t you wear any shoes in this town?”
“Ah,” said he, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
“But what is the matter? Don’t you believe in shoes?”
“Believe in shoes, my friend! I should say we do. That is the first article of our creed, shoes. They are indispensable to the well-being of humanity. Such chilblains, cuts, sores, suffering as shoes prevent! It is wonderful!”
“Well, then, why don’t you wear them?” said I, bewildered.
“Ah,” said he, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
Though considerably nonplussed I checked in, secured my room and went directly to the coffee shop and deliberately sat down by an amiable looking gentleman who likewise conformed to the convention of his fellow citizens. He wore no shoes. Friendly enough, he suggested after we had eaten, that we look about the city. The first thing we noticed upon emerging from the hotel was a huge brick structure of impressive proportions. To this he pointed with pride.
“You see that?” said he. “That is one of our outstanding shoe manufacturing establishments. “A what?” I asked in amazement. “You mean you make shoes in there?”
“Well, not exactly,” said he, a bit abashed, “we talk about making shoes there, and believe me, we have got one of the most brilliant young fellows you have ever heard. He talks most convincingly and thrillingly every week on this great subject of shoes. He has a most persuasive and appealing way. Just yesterday he moved the people profoundly with his exposition of the necessity of shoe-wearing. Many broke down and wept. It was really wonderful.” “But why don’t they wear them?” said I, insistently. “Ah,” said he, putting his hand upon my arm and looking wistfully into my eyes, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
Just then, as we turned down a side street, I saw through a cellar window a cobbler actually making a pair of shoes. Excusing myself from my friend I burst into the little shop and asked the shoemaker how it happened that his shop was not overrun with customers. Said he “Nobody wants my shoes. They just talk about them.”
“Give me what pairs you have ready,” said I eagerly, and I paid him thrice the amount he modestly asked. Hurriedly, I returned to my friend and proffered them to him, saying, “Here, my friend, some one of these pairs will surely fit you. Take them, put them on. They will save you untold suffering.”
But he looked embarrassed; in fact he was well-nigh overcome with chagrin. “Ah, thank you,” said he politely, “but you don’t understand. It just isn’t being done. The front families. Well, I…” “But why don’t you wear them?” said I, dumbfounded. “Ah,” said he, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”


I’m going to talk about three R’s – Reeb, racism, and risk. And then I’ll see if I can find my way back to shoes.

This week I will be going to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the historic voting rights struggles of 1965. This will be a huge commemoration and rededication to the unfinished work of racial justice and, sad to say, voting rights.

On February 26 of 1965, while participating in a peaceful voting rights march in Marion, Alabama, a young Black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson was beaten, shot and killed by state troopers. His death, as well as the earlier deaths of four little Black girls in the bombing of their Birmingham Sunday school form the backdrop the events in Selma, documented by the acclaimed new movie titled Selma.

Pivotal to the voting rights movement, and documented by the movie, was the murder in Selma of a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, James Reeb.

In those days, our late minister Jack Mendelsohn was minister of Boston’s Arlington Street Church where Reeb and his family were members. I know that, from this pulpit, over the years Jack shared his recollections of that tumultuous time, and I too have preached about Reeb and Selma – and I first visited there – for another commemoration in 2002.

Still I must assume that some of you remain unfamiliar with Reeb’s story. Let’s check that out – how many of you have not heard Reeb’s name before today? I’m glad, because the name Jim Reeb is one which we all ought to know well and his is a story worth retelling.

I’ll start with just the facts. Born the 1st of January 1927 in Wichita, Kansas, James Reeb moved with his family to Casper, Wyoming when he was in his mid-teens. He graduated from St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota and entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1950 – soon after marrying Marie Deason, also a student from Casper. Three years later he was ordained a Presbyterian minister and took his first assignment in Philadelphia General Hospital. A growing interest in psychiatry led Reeb to question his orthodox religious beliefs, and he made his way to the Unitarian ministry. He became assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. in 1959 and a minister in full standing in 1962.

In September, 1964, Jim, Marie and their four children moved to Boston where Reeb was to direct a low-income housing program in Roxbury for the American Friends Service Committee. They deliberately chose to live in Dorchester near his work, believing it would be hypocritical to move to an affluent suburb. There he encountered the effects of racism: defacto school segregation and inadequate city services. One of his first assignments was to investigate a fire in a Roxbury tenement house, rife with fire code violations that killed four people. Like so many others, he also followed the civil rights movement in the South.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965 millions of television viewers witnessed the result of white southern intransigence symbolized by Gov. George Wallace: On Route 80 in Selma, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers savagely beat and tear-gassed 650 peaceful demonstrators who were planning to march to the state capital demanding the right to vote.

In response, Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon clergy of all denominations to come to Selma as witnesses. With about 50 other Unitarian Universalists, Reeb arrived there on the morning of Tuesday, March 9, in time to participate in a peaceful march to the same place on Route 80 where Sunday’s march had met with violence.

I want to recount Reeb’s last steps. Tuesday night, after the march, Reeb and two other UU ministers, Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller, went to dinner at a place called Walker’s Café, one of the few places where Whites and Blacks could eat together. A lot of people were there and the restaurant was hard pressed to find enough food. Miller later recalled that he ordered steak and got chicken.

After dinner, Miller bought a cigar and walked outside to light it. Reeb went to the phone to call Marie. At 7:30 they left Walker’s Café; it was dark. “Reeb walked on the outside of the pavement, near the curb, Miller in the middle, and Olsen on the inside… Four white men (wearing madras sports coats) moved toward them…shouting, “Hey niggers, hey you niggers!” Olsen mumbled, ‘Oh, oh, here’s trouble,’ and the three quickened their pace. One of the men swung a three-foot club or pipe at Jim’s head just above the left ear. ‘It was a two-handed swing in the style of a left-handed batter,’ Olsen recalled, ‘and the man’s face was intense and vicious.’ Olsen and Miller were set upon by flailing fists. Miller dropped to the ground in the fetal fashion taught to civil rights demonstrators, and Olsen went down from blows on his head and chest, his glasses flying. Jim Reeb fell over backwards. The attackers kicked the three men on the sidewalk and yelled, “Here’s how it feels to be a nigger down here,” and they ran away. No one else was on the street.
Reeb was taken first to a local infirmary where they were told to go to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham, 65 miles away. Before leaving Selma, however, they had to borrow $150 because the Birmingham Hospital required a deposit before they would treat Reeb. On the way there, the ambulance had a flat tire. Police arrived, detained them with questions, and refused to provide an escort, saying, “You don’t need any help.” Driving at speeds up to 110 miles an hour, they finally arrived in Birmingham where surgery was performed to no avail.

Jack Mendelsohn was still in Boston then and, as Reeb’s minister, he sat up all night with Marie. Marie told the younger children the news but it was her wish that Jack tell Reeb’s 13-year old son John the seriousness of his father’s injuries. The next morning Marie left for Alabama by plane before her children awoke. Jack later wrote, “So it was I who took John into the kitchen and told him everything I knew, including the word from the hospital that there was no hope for his father’s recovery. I will never forget the bewilderment, pain, pride, and courage that mingled in constantly changing patterns on his handsome, adolescent face as we talked.” Jim Reeb died on Thursday, March 11th, 2 days after the attack. President Lyndon Johnson sent a dozen yellow roses to the hospital and called Marie with his condolences, as did Martin Luther King.

Meanwhile, demonstrations in Selma continued, and on March 15 – following a memorial service for Reeb – protesters gathered on the courthouse steps. March 15 was also the day that the historic voting rights bill was sent by President Johnson to a special session of Congress.

A permit to hold the great march from Selma to Montgomery was finally obtained, and a call to northern clergy and laypeople went out to join the final part of the march. And so it was that the marchers – now protected by 1900 federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, 100 FBI agents and 1000 army troops – set out for Montgomery. They were joined by 30,000 sympathizers from all over the country – this time including 250 UU clergy, including Jack Mendelsohn, and 500 UU laypeople, including one of our parishioners, Grace Lindquist and her husband Carl. I’ll be interested if you know others who also joined that march. Together they made it to Montgomery where they heard King and others speak.

The voting right’s bill – prohibiting states from denying on the basis of race or color a citizen’s right to vote in any election – was on its way through Congress. The legislation also banned such tools of discrimination as literacy tests and poll taxes and provided federal protection for those who wished to register to vote. On August 6, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It may fairly be said that the death of Jim Reeb, a northern White clergyman, was a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Hundreds of Black people had been lynched and murdered, but – evidence of the racism that did and continues to afflict us – the country did not sit up and take notice until Reeb died. Three men from Selma were tried for Reeb’s murder and acquitted. A fourth suspect was never brought to trial.

Well there you have it. I want to make a few observations.
First let us recall President Obama 2013 inaugural address in which he linked the struggles for racial justice with those for women’s and gay rights. The President said,

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.”

The heroic events of 1965, including the martyrdom of Jim Reeb, call for celebration and the movie Selma is worthy of it. You may know that there are historical quibbles about the accuracy of the movie but quibbles are what they are. Our parishioner Doris Smith is a storyteller and sometimes when telling a story she says, “It may not have happened exactly as I told it, but it’s the truth.” Selma, likewise, tells the truth.

I am trying to arrange for a special group showing of Selma so that we may see and discuss it together. Even if you’ve already seen it, it’s worth seeing again.

The events in Selma were also one of the most remarkable times in our denomination’s history. In March of 1965, the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association was meeting on Beacon Hill in Boston and, when they received a telegrammed invitation from King, they adjourned and reconvened in the basement of Brown Chapel in Selma.
What would it take for our church board today to adjourn and reconvene somewhere else at the crossroads of justice?
Selma brought out uncommon courage. I’m told that when someone telephoned the church and said that they planned to throw a bomb through the window, the person answering the phone said, “Well, you’re just going to have to wait and get in line. We’re too busy for your nonsense!”

The UUA Board – and the Board of the UU Service Committee – again will be in Selma this week. An African-American colleague tells me that when she visited Selma a few years ago, a resident asked her what denomination she was. When she said, Unitarian Universalist, the resident responded, “Oh, I know Unitarian Universalists. You were here in ’65. There were Jews, and Christians, and orthodox there in ’65 but we UU’s were there is disproportionate numbers; and we were known by our presence. Where, I wonder, would we be known for our presence today?

My colleague Mark Morrison-Read, who has preached here and written extensively about the history of the often unwelcoming attitudes of white UU’s to people of color who thought they wanted to be UU ministers, has written a new book titled Selma Awakening.
In Selma Awakening, Mark recalls that well into the middle of the 20th century, the espoused values of Unitarian Universalists have tended to be inclusive and tolerant…we talked a good game but, oblivious, too often we have given but lip service to our values. In our religious education, in sermons and in the day-to-day life of our enlightened but cozy, self-satisfied and upper middle-class white congregations rarely did we rock the racist boat.

Until Selma. Shocked by the blatant brutality of southern racism, horrified by the murder of Jim Reeb, there was a Selma “awakening.” We could not intellectualize nor temporize nor anesthetize our conscience; and suddenly there was a synchronicity of our espoused and our lived values. For once, we walked our talk.

Many of you have heard me tell of being a 13-year old at the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago and accompanying our minister, Edwin T. (ET) Buehrer to nearby Oak Park where with others of all races and creeds, we protested the racist practice of red-lining whereby realtors would draw red lines on the map to determine which neighborhoods would sell homes to Black people and which would remain exclusively White.

Standing there with my minister, I had an awakening: I doubt that I understood all the aspects of the issues, but I did understand that my religion was not merely to interpret the world or my experience of it, but my religion was about changing the world. My espoused values and my lived values snapped into a fresh and powerful alignment. That happened when I was 13 and – for experiences like that – that’s still why I come to church.

Here too there was a Boston awakening. Some of you marched with King here in 1965. And so too there was a Bedford awakening. When I look at some of our members of longest standing, I know that your Unitarian Universalism also was forged in the heat of the fair housing struggle. Your espoused values and your lived values snapped into a fresh and powerful alignment.

Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen I said were the two colleagues who were on that sidewalk with Jim Reeb. Both are now in their 80’s and I’ll be with them in Selma. I knew Orloff as a youth adviser when I was a teenager. Last week, I was on the phone with Clark. Looking back on Selma, he recalled how happenstance it was. Back then he was a young minister in Berkeley, California and at first he wasn’t going to go to Selma because he couldn’t afford it. But then a parishioner offered to pay his plane fare and so, he said, “I decided to go. What could go wrong? I’ll be with a lot of clergy. “ And, as the three of them left Walker’s Café, Jim Reeb was on the curbside and Orloff in the middle, and Clark on the inside. It could so easily have been different.
When Clark meets with schoolchildren these days, he concludes by saying, “I decided to go.” We too need be awake to the occasions when we are called to go.

Do you remember last month I preached about Cheryl Strayed and the movie Wild where she decided, for her own healing, that she would walk the Pacific Crest Trail? Her life at the time was so ugly that she reasoned “Sometimes, to be made whole, we need to put ourselves in the way of beauty.”

I think a corollary to that wisdom is that sometimes, to be made whole, we need to put ourselves in the way of injustice. We need to get in the way. I was interested to learn that “get in the way” is one of the slogans of the pioneering activist John Lewis. Lewis was a young civil rights activist who was in Selma in ’65 and he’s also portrayed in the movie. He was younger and more brash than King, and he’s now a revered congressman. He’ll be in Selma this week. John Lewis’s biography is titled Get In the Way and he says, “Sometimes you have to disturb the sense of peace and tranquility and create a little noise to get peoples’ attention.”

That’s true, I think, we need to get in the way…but I don’t think you necessarily have to create a lot of noise. When I was about to get off the phone with Clark last week, I asked him what he was up to lately now that he and his wife are living in Asheville, NC. They want to meet people of other races, he said, and they’ve recently decided that the way to do so there is by joining the YWCA. Joining the YWCA! Now there’s a radical thing for you! No political theorizing, no speechifying, no going to politically correct workshops, no – the Olsen’s simply decided to get in the way of circumstances that might introduce them to people they otherwise would not know. It’s simple really, deciding to go, allowing happenstance into our lives, getting in the way. Walking our talk.

It’s like taking the risk of not going barefoot. Ah, yes! Believe in shoes, my friend? That is the first article of our creed, shoes! Of shoes we can speak convincingly, thrillingly, every week. But why don’t you wear them? I was asked. “Ah,” I said, “that’s just it. Why don’t we?”