SELMA, Ala. (AP) — John Reeb plodded down the cracked pavement of Washington Street, his thick white beard and frizzy gray hair glowing orange in the setting sun. His feet ached as he moved slowly past the white-brick café on the right, his first footsteps in Selma, Alabama, shadowing the route his father took 50 years earlier.
Sixty-four strides from the café was a 3-foot wide memorial with a man immaculately carved on the front. John weaved between photographers, reporters, tourists and locals, and faced the front of the monument.
There, just as he remembered him, was a bronze version of the man he hadn’t seen in 50 years. There was the dimple on his left cheek. There was the greased hair, always slicked to the left, the rimmed circular glasses and the bow tie.
There was his father, James Reeb.
John’s lips tightened behind his beard. The 63-year-old from Wyoming stood motionless, staring through his black sunglasses.
James Reeb was a white Unitarian minister raised in Casper. Those who knew him best called him Jim. On March 7, 1965, he was watching TV with his wife, Marie, at their home in Boston. He saw white Alabama State Troopers brutally attack peaceful, black marchers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.
The protesters were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery. They wanted equal voting rights.
The violence outraged Jim. The next morning, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a message to clergymen across the country: Join him and others in Selma for another march set for the following day. Jim heard the message, and told Marie he needed to go.
He traveled to Selma, and on March 9 walked halfway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He planned to cross, but instead, King knelt and led the protesters in prayer on the pavement above the Alabama River. Then, they turned around.
That night, Jim dined at the white-brick café on Washington Street. He was joined by two fellow Unitarian ministers. They finished their meal and were walking down the sidewalk when four white men attacked, clubbing Jim in the head and beating the two ministers.
Jim died from brain damage two days later at a Birmingham hospital. His death would help push Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Now, for the first time in his life, John was here. It had been a struggle. His feet were tender from an illness. He couldn’t handle the trickles of water from a shower, or his dogs licking his feet. It was an intense, pins-and-needles pain, one that might prevent him from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
That’s why he was here. To finish the march.
He took a deep breath in front of the memorial where his father was struck. He gazed at the bronze eyes, when an 85-year-old woman with thick black sunglasses and curly white hair snuck under his left arm.
It was his mom, Marie.
John held his mother while she cried. She hadn’t been to Selma in 25 years.
A crowd began to form. The 15 other members of the Reeb family who traveled from Casper, Cheyenne and California circled around. They laid a wreath in front of the monument, and afterward, 40 photographers and tourists with iPhones and iPads snapped pictures while everyone yelled.
“I need the Reeb family right here!”
“Two steps back, please!”
“We need to get a wide shot!”
“Back up! Give them space!
“Everybody look right here!”
“Back up some more please!”
“Move this way John!”
The mob grew by the minute. People crossed the street to see who was in the middle of the circus.
For nearly 50 years, John had no interest in taking a picture in front of this memorial. He never wanted to be on this sidewalk, in this state.
He never wanted to face the memories he’d avoided for nearly his entire life. And yet here he was, posing for photographs with a tight-lipped smile.
The boy stood alone, staring at the wooden mantle above the gas-stove fireplace on the first floor of his parent’s gray Boston home. Rays of the setting sun shone through a nearby window on this Thursday evening, March 11, 1965, one week after his 13th birthday.
Outside, Half Moon Street was packed. Reporters and photographers waited, cameras in hand, while a few locals knelt on the pavement and prayed. Inside, friends and co-workers of the family did what they could to help. Some stood guard on the front porch. Others answered the phone that wouldn’t stop ringing.
Earlier that morning, Marie Reeb left for Birmingham, Alabama, as her four children slept. Her husband was in a coma at the University Hospital, and according to newspapers across the nation, the Rev. James J. Reeb wasn’t going to survive.
Before Marie left the home for the airport, she found Dr. Jack Mendelsohn. Like her husband, he was a Unitarian minister. Marie approached with strict instructions.
Only tell John.
John was the oldest of the Reeb children: Karen, 6, Anne, 5, and Steven, 3, were too young to understand.
The family had lived in Boston for seven months. Before that, the Reebs resided in a Washington D.C. suburb called Chevy Chase. There, James Reeb worked nights and weekends as a Unitarian minister at All Souls Church.
John loved Chevy Chase. It was a suburb where neighbors left their doors unlocked, where kids played hide and seek and families walked to the movie theater.
But after three years, Jim decided to move the Reebs to Boston. He took a pay cut to join the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that helped minorities find low-income housing and assisted children in receiving good schooling.
John wanted to stay in D.C., but he had no say. He remembers sitting in the family’s blue and white station wagon with a rusted hole in the floorboard, saying goodbye to his friends and home.
The Reebs moved into a gray house with yellow trim. His father had insisted the family live in the same neighborhood he was working. Not a cushy suburb: The Roxbury ghetto.
It was a town where cars were stripped and burned on the street, where they once found a man sleeping under their porch. At school, John was one of five white children of a couple thousand. He always sat by himself in the cafeteria. There were days he was chased home, and one time, a boy shoved a knife at his groin demanding lunch money.
John complained to Marie, but it was no use complaining to his father. Most nights, he wasn’t home before John went to bed. That’s because Jim was always out helping others. He was a pastor, a minister and a teacher over the course of his life, but most importantly, he was a white man busy with the never-ending fight for civil rights.
That’s why, three days before, when Jim told his son he was going to Selma, John thought nothing of it. Now, a man with glasses and dark hair named Dr. Mendelsohn approached. He said there was no hope.
John cried. He was shocked. He was confused.
Dr. Mendelsohn cried with the boy, but soon, John found himself alone at the mantle.
God, explain to me. Why would you take a man who was doing all this good work, he prayed. Why would you take my dad?
John waited for a response.
It never came.
The next moments of John’s life are remembered in fragments.
First he’s standing in the doorway at a memorial service for his father at All Souls Church in D.C., and Vice President Hubert Humphrey is shaking his hand and saying, “Sorry.” Then he’s inside the cockpit of an Air Force jet that President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched for the family’s flight to Casper. Next he’s looking out the window of a different plane beside an urn of ashes, above Shirley Basin, where he and his father enjoyed one of their favorite hobbies, walking through the Petrified Forest.
Then John remembers the mail.
It arrived by the sack, thousands of letters from all over the world. Some contained local newspaper clippings. Others included checks, ranging from $5 to $100. One wounded soldier even sent John his Purple Heart.
Marie read them all, but John’s main interest was the hate mail. They were easy to spot because most lacked a return address.
Like this letter, typed and addressed to Rev. James Reeve (sic), Patient, General Hospital, Birmingham, Alabama, on the day he died.
“Dear Sir: Keep your nose out of the affairs of others: Limit your soul-saving to Massachusetts: There is lots to do there: In pushing your way into Alabama you were looking for trouble, and trouble is what you received; You are just adding fuel to the flames: Go home.”
The media attention stopped when the Reebs moved to Casper. That was a good thing. Nobody in the family wanted to talk about what happened, especially John. He was an angry 13-year-old, as he recalls, so much that after two years living in Casper, he and Marie agreed he should attend military school in Minnesota.
John returned when he was 18, and started working at a welding company. Soon after, he met a girl named Norine, and two years later, they were married.
Norine was born in Casper but raised overseas. In 1965, she was an 11-year-old living in the jungles of Venezuela. She never knew the name James Reeb. She figured John’s father died of natural causes.
It took four years of marriage for John to reveal his father was murdered.
As he aged, John became a 240-pound man with a curling white mustache and a Santa Claus beard that started at the sideburns and stretched 7 inches down his chest. His laugh, a short, powerful “HAH,” was contagious, just like his father’s.
He was a drinker and a tobacco chewer. He could polish off a fifth of whiskey in a night and easily be awake for work by 5 a.m. the next day.
The alcohol and tobacco relaxed him. John dealt with anxiety his entire life. Some nights he’d pace the floor of his bedroom, unable to sleep. Maybe it was stress from work. Maybe it was something else. John never tried to explain his emotions. They were easier to ignore.
Norine and John raised three children.
The Reebs finally arrived at the site of the attack, John’s first steps in Selma surrounded by strangers.
Media camped outside John’s Boston home after his father was beaten. Now, they crowded on barricaded streets, with iPhones, iPads and video cameras.
A private moment was once again public.
Later that night, John sat in flannel pajama bottoms in his hotel room and reflected on that moment.
“To tell you the truth, I wish I would’ve been alone for a little bit,” he said, stroking his beard, one leg crossed over the other. “Just to reflect. There was just too much going on.
“I think the atmosphere would’ve been different if Obama was not going to be there that day speaking. I don’t think in my opinion I saw the true Selma, whether it be good or bad. It was more like a circus.”
He hoped the march would be different. He was excited and nervous. Nervous for security reasons, excited because he was so close to finishing what his father began.
John walked toward his hotel room desk and opened a bag of pills, mostly pain medication for his feet. He swallowed one pill down with blue Gatorade.
The family had been trying to convince John all week to use a wheelchair for the Sunday afternoon march.
“They wanted to take one along even though I told them not to, in case it comes to bridge time and I needed it,” John said, now bending close to whisper. “I didn’t want to tell them I’d take enough pain pills.
“I’ll get across that bridge.”
Leah awoke early the next morning and checked her Facebook at the hotel. She scrolled through her newsfeed, stumbling on a photo of a white piece of paper in a plastic sleeve, held close to the camera. The top line was bolded and capitalized.
Below the message was a sketch. It pictured a man with dark eyes, wearing a white robe and a white, sharply pointed hat.
“The KKK Wants You!” the words read around the picture.
Thousands of these flyers were delivered Saturday night in Selma. According to the Facebook posting, some were delivered to the locals in the Brown Chapel area, predominantly a black neighborhood.
Leah showed Norine the picture. Norine chose not to tell John.
That morning, downtown Selma was already shoulder-to-shoulder two hours after sunrise on a cloudless day. Thousands gathered in front of Broad Street leading to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the echoes of TVs and speakers in town blasting a live broadcast of the pre-march festivities from Brown Chapel.
The Reebs’ bus arrived at noon, three blocks from the bridge. The 17 family members wore matching lime green T-shirts so they wouldn’t lose each other in the crowd. But they also wore something else.
John’s was white, clipped to the collar of his shirt, hiding behind a curtain of white hairs. His arms were crossed, sitting in a wheelchair next to his mother.
“I was going to walk,” he said, grumbling as Corrie wheeled him down the street toward the crowd. “But I got outvoted by a bunch of women.HAH! HAH!”
“But I’ll be able to cross with my mom. So that’s important.”
The family moved as close as they could to the bridge but couldn’t pierce through the thick wall of people. The march would not begin for another hour.
“This is going to be nuts,” Leah, 31, said, wearing a navy blue bow tie with green polka dots. “We’ve got to stick together. We’re just going to have to hang on to each other.”
When Leah, Corrie and their aunts were here for the 40th anniversary march, they were positioned at the front of the line. Now, they stood next to a food truck to the left of the bridge, behind thousands of people.
John sat next to his mother, who wore a blue and grey-checkered bow tie. He turned toward her wheelchair and put his hand on her lap.
“Mom, what do you think about crossing the bridge? What’s going through your mind?”
“It will be one for the lifetime for me.”
“Me, too,” John said, smiling. “It’s good we’re doing it together. Because who knows whether the group that’s here today, all 17 of us, would ever be able to meet again to do this on the 60th or 70th or 75th anniversary.”
The Reebs waited patiently for 45 minutes, until an organizer on their tour attempted to move the family to the front of the pack.
“Make a hole please! We have a wheelchair!
“Excuse us. Excuse us!”
The Reebs grabbed onto each other’s shirts, hands and shoulders, weaving their way to the front of the line. They met a man with dreadlocks in a beige suit named Mark Thompson at the front of the bridge. He was trying to control the madness.
Thompson screamed in his megaphone for the crowd to move out of the way for the Rev. James Reeb’s family.
“Come on Reeb!” he yelled.
Corrie wheeled John through a crowd that didn’t want to part. His body jerked on the cracks and curves of the pavement, his tender feet leading the way. People bumped into his legs. The crowd was yelling. John’s head was down, lips hidden in his beard.
Corrie inched closer, but the lane was too narrow for the wheelchair. The march was minutes from beginning.
“Excuse us,” she said. “Sorry.”
By then, John had enough.
He gripped the armrests of the wheelchair, placed his feet on the ground and pushed himself free.
“Hold it, hold it, hold it. Hold your position!” Thompson yelled.
“Let’s get organized. We have Rev. Reeb’s family here. Now, out of respect for them, we’re going to be organized and disciplined. He came here and gave his life.”
The crowd looked at the family wearing the lime green shirts and started taking pictures.
John’s steps were jagged. He held onto the arm of Leah’s husband, making his way to the front of the pack where four lines of photographers faced the marchers.
You cannot see the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge until you crest the middle. All you can see are the large, black letters naming the bridge, and the thick steel and concrete beams casting shadows in the mocha waters of the Alabama River.
Thompson started marching, and the crowd followed along. They held signs like, “Black Lives Matter,” ”No justice, No peace.” There were large boards with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. There were long poles with flags surfing in the wind, one reading “Victory,” another “Hope.”
Two helicopters circled the bridge for security, while a drone hovered overhead to record the marchers on national TV.
John walked slowly. He bent down and grabbed his mother’s hand as she rode in her wheelchair. They marched silently up the first portion of the bridge. Cameras clicked and people chanted, mostly a re-mixed version of the song “Kumbaya.”
“Someone’s marching my lord, come by here.”
People were tripping, pushing, bumping into each other. Behind, thousands of marchers stretched five blocks down Broad Street into downtown Selma.
John and Marie moved with the crowd, now underneath the giant beams. Faster walkers passed them by. John tilted his head and gazed at the bolts and beams of the 75-year-old bridge. He smiled.
He continued to walk, but the march abruptly stopped.
People were stuck in the middle of the bridge, the spot where it’s difficult to see what lies ahead and behind. To the left were brick buildings lining the river. To the right were trees along the water wearing Spanish moss like a fuzzy scarf.
“Quiet!” a voice said, and a wave of shushes swept down the bridge. The front of the march was kneeling and praying.
Marie started to cry.
Here, 50 years ago, on this pavement, her husband knelt, prayed and turned back.
John looked down and squeezed his mom’s hand. He opened his mouth, but no words came. Norine rubbed his back.
“Come on up Ms. Reeb! Bring Ms. Reeb right on up here,” someone said from the front of the line. “There are 10,000 people here, and they want to be close to you!”
Marie grinned and wiped away a tear. Her wheelchair weaved to the front of the line. John followed. When he caught up, he bent down and held her hand.
Now, after a six-minute pause, the march resumed with mother and son leading the way. The crowd started to walk, chanting: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
The Reebs continued down the slight decline. Ahead, 25 yards away, was the end of the bridge. John smiled, enough to see his teeth, enough to see the dimple on his right cheek. His bow tie hung on an angle down his chest. Marie was beaming.
The two continued forward, surrounded by their family, holding hands and singing.
“Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.”
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