NORTHFIELD, Minn. (WCCO) — St. Olaf College in Northfield is celebrating the life and death of one of its most famous alums.
The Rev. James Reeb was a member of the class of 1950 and one of several icons of the civil rights movement. Reeb answered the call for clergy to join civil rights marchers in Selma in March of 1965.
He was part of the second march after Bloody Sunday, called “Turnaround Tuesday.” Later that evening after sharing dinner with two other ministers, Reeb was viciously beaten by a group of white men.
He died two days later.
Some say his death sparked President Lyndon B. Johnson to fast track signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Reeb’s march to help others began long before he marched in Selma.
“I can feel him here walking the sidewalks and being in the buildings,” Anne Reeb said.
It’s on the campus of St. Olaf College that James Reeb built the foundation for what would be his mission, his destiny.
“My father was involved in the early 60s in what is called the Urban Ministry,” Anne Reeb said.
Daughter Anne Reeb said St. Olaf helped transform her father from a conservative Presbyterian to a Unitarian Universalist Minister with his focus on social justice.
“One quote by one of his associates said the most important thing to Jim was people, people in need and that’s where he wanted to serve where there was need,” Anne Reeb said.
Many were not surprised when Reeb answered the call from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join civil rights marchers in Selma. It was after Bloody Sunday that Reeb arrived in the south.
He marched on “Turnaround Tuesday” with Dr. King. Later that night, after dinner with two other ministers, he was beaten by a group of white men. The attack was re-told in the movie “Selma.”
Fifty years after Selma, Reeb is remembered by his alma mater.
“I think that you can take the story of my grandfather and you can tell it to today and you can teach the youth of this country and what he did and what he lived for,” Leah Reeb said.
Reeb’s daughter and granddaughter walked through the Flaten Art Museum to see the exhibit dedicated to Reeb.
“I knew Jim fairly well and we were classmates,” Phillip Froiland, St. Olaf Class of 1950, said.
Froiland said he was proud to meet the family of his old friend.
“Yes, Jim Reeb made a difference he really did,” Froiland said.
James Reeb made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. Dr. King preched his eulogy.
Later that day, President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned Reeb’s death when he introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress.
Reeb’s daughter believes her father would be proud but not satisfied about of how far we’ve come as a nation.
“I think my father would say the work isn’t over, the work is not done,” Anne Reeb said.
St. Olaf dedicated the Reeb Reflection Room on campus Thursday afternoon.
Thursday night is the grand opening of the exhibit in his honor, Selma to Montgomery Marching along the Voting Rights Trail.