Some people, literally, get away with murder. That’s what happened forty-seven years ago, on March 11, 1965, when James Reeb was hit over the head with a club and killed in Selma, Alabama.
Reverend Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister, one of the hundreds of rabbis, priests, nuns and other clergy who responded to Martin Luther King’s plea to come south in support of civil rights following “Bloody Sunday,” when peaceful protestors were attacked by police dogs and blue-helmeted troopers wielding rubber hoses wrapped in barbed wire during a non-violent march toward the Montgomery statehouse.
As Reeb walked out of the Blue Moon café in Selma with two colleagues, the three clergymen were attacked from behind. Reeb, a father of four from Boston, died of a broken skull soon afterward.
Three men--Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O’Neal Hoggle—were tried for murder before an all-white jury after African Americans had been systematically removed from the panel. One of the jurors was the brother of a key witness for the defense. Two of the jurors told the judge they despised white activists who shared meals with blacks, but were allowed to sit in judgment nonetheless. The attorney for the defense told the jury during the trial that “certain civil rights groups have to have a martyr, and they were willing to let Reeb die,” as if the real guilty parties were the NAACP and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Despite these tainted proceedings (or because of them), all three defendants were declared not guilty.
Reeb’s murder shocked the conscience of the nation. Four days after he died, President Lyndon Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to Congress, which brought the ballot to millions of formerly disenfranchised citizens of color. For the first time, there was fair representation at the polls. Selma added 7,000 black voters to its registration rolls, and the sheriff who presided over the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” was voted out of office.
But justice at the ballot box and justice in the courtroom are two different matters. In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to pursue Civil Rights era crimes across the span of decades. Edgar Ray Killen, for example, an 80-year-old former Klansman, was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his role in killing three civil rights workers in Mississippi and burying their bodies in an earthen dam. Four years ago, Congress passed the “Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act” to encourage the U.S. Department of Justice to race the clock, bringing belated charges against the perpetrators of heinous crimes like the lynching of the fourteen year old Till—the boy allegedly was seen flirting with a white woman--before time runs out.
With that aim, the FIB announced a year ago on March 11, the anniversary Reeb’s death, that it was re-opening the case. At least one of the men who was charged with attacking Reeb and his friends remains alive and at large. But when I phoned the Bureau and spoke with Greg Comcowich to learn if there had been developments or progress made, he told me that the investigation had once more been closed. So there is a strong possibility that at least one of James Reeb’s murderers is still walking free.
It took the all-white jury just 97 minutes to acquit him, back in 1965. After almost fifty years, we are still waiting for justice.