By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor New Journal and Guide
Voters elected three people of color to Ferguson City Council a year after Michael Brown’s cold, still body lay on the cement in 2014; however, in 1965, it would take Selma voters seven years to elect five people of color to city council after a group of whites nearly clubbed the Rev. James J. Reeb to death on a Selma street.
Death is a grim subject. But voters streamed to the polls and changed the makeup of Ferguson, Mo., City Council in 2015, the year after Brown, an unarmed teenager, was killed in 2014 by a white police officer, who was acquitted. His parents Lezley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. received a $1.5 million settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit in 2017.
Dwayne James, whose term expired, was the only African-American serving on Ferguson City Council the year Brown was killed. The next year, in April 2015, Ella Jones won nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-way race and became the first African-American female council member. Currently there are three African-Americans on the six-person council, according to the city’s website. The other two members of color are Fran Griffin, and Byron Fry. Ferguson City Council is a part-time job that pays $250 a month.
Describing her campaign theme in Ferguson, Fran Griffin, a mother and activist said, “My main message (was) … have some hope. I know you don’t trust the system. If I can show you that you can trust me, then we can work together. It’s little-by-little-trust-building. People have no faith in leadership.”
After the election ended, Brian Fletcher, a former mayor of Ferguson, said, “I think we made tremendous progress tonight. I mean, we’ve moved like a century’s worth of past history in one night.”
Ferguson is located about 600 miles away from Selma; however, the two towns have a lot in common. The African-American population is higher than 50 percent in both towns. Blacks make up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population. African-Americans make up 87 percent of the population in Selma, where registered voters increased from less than 1,000 to over 10,000 in 1965, when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
Before African-Americans were elected to public office in Selma in March 1965, a Black-and-white photo showed the nearly-dead body of Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist pastor. His eerily still body lay on an examining table at the University of Alabama Hospital. President Lyndon Johnson cited Reeb’s brutal murder when he urged Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Reeb traveled from Boston in March 1965 to join the Civil Rights Movement, a month after a young unarmed African-American civil rights worker named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in February 1965. The Selma to Montgomery march was organized in response to Jackson’s death.
A group of white men beat Reeb and two other white ministers who were in town for the Selma to Montgomery march. The ministers were walking on a street corner outside of Walker’s Café, a segregated restaurant in Selma. Reeb, the 38-year-old father of four went into a coma and died from brain damage two days after he was savagely clubbed outside the restaurant.
Later that year, a trial was held for three white men. Authorities charged the three men with first-degree murder: Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle, and Namon O’Neal Hoggle. They were acquitted by an all-white jury in December 1965.
One of the white pastors walking with Reeb, the Rev. Orloff Miller described the attack in an interview in November 1985 for PBS’s Eyes on the Prize, “And as we started walking from across the street, there appeared four or five white men, and they yelled at us, ‘Hey, you niggers.’ And we did not look across at them, but we just sort of quickened our pace, we didn’t run but, ah, continued walking in the same direction.”
The Rev. Clark Olson, the other white minister walking with Reeb, said in a March 1965 WATC interview, “I did look around in time to see one man with some kind of a stick or a pipe or a club swing this, this stick, uh, violently at Jim Reeb. And he swung this stick and it hit Jim on the side of the head. And Jim immediately fell to the pavement on his back.”
Of Reeb’s death President Lyndon Johnson later said, “Many were brutally assaulted; one good man, a man of God, was killed.”
Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended Reeb’s memorial service at All Souls Church in D.C. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent an Air Force jet that flew the slain minister’s family to Casper, Wyo., where Reeb was raised. A memorial service was held there. On March 25, 1965 about 30,000 people completed the march from Selma to Montgomery under the protection of federalized Alabama National Guard troops.
In 2015, Reeb’s son, John, age 63, went to Selma to finish the march that his father started with the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. on March 9, 1965. His son finished the march across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery during the march’s 50th anniversary. He was almost 13 when his father was killed for trying to help African-Americans obtain the right to vote.
The Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. preached Reeb’s eulogy. Back home in Casper, his son watched thousands of letters arrive by the sack from all over the world.
Some contained local newspaper clippings. Others included checks, ranging from $5 to $100. One wounded soldier even sent John Reeb his Purple Heart.
This past August, an unveiling ceremony was held in Casper for the Rev. James Reeb Memorial Mural. It shows King walking with a group that includes Reeb.
As the New Journal and Guide continues to examine the 2020 Black History Month theme, “African-Americans and the Vote,” an obvious question surfaces. Did the death of Brown and Reeb breathe fresh life into the political systems in Ferguson and Selma?
While it took Ferguson only one year to add more African-Americans to city council after Brown was killed, Selma took seven years. Reeb was murdered in 1965.
In 1972, Selma elected its first five African-Americans to city council because the at-large system was the chief obstacle following passage of the Voting Rights Act, not just in Selma but nationwide.
“All of us who ran for office back in those days knew our chances of being elected were slim, but we were determined to run regardless of the circumstances,” said Frederick D. Reese who was elected in 1972 to Selma’s 11-member council and served 12 years.
“We had a right to vote, but were kept from it by those who didn’t want to see us in office because of the color of our skin,” Reese said in a March 2015 interview at age 85, in The Montgomery Advisor.
Reese, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1984, said it took 35 years to finally unseat Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, a white man who had served for nearly four decades as mayor. Smitherman was defeated in 2000 by James Perkins, Selma’s first African-American mayor. “We were ready to give our lives to let those who controlled voting in Selma know we were going to determine our own destiny,” said Reese. “We weren’t going to stop until we became registered voters.”
However, becoming a registered voter had been a tougher feat. Reese reflected on his many futile trips to the county courthouse to apply for a voter registration application. Reese said he was told by a registrar to state the number of jellybeans in a jar on his table.
“I told him I didn’t know how many were in the jar and he told me to leave his office,” said Reese. “That’s the way it was back then. It didn’t stop us, though. We just kept at it.”
Reese added, “We were ready to give our lives to let those who controlled voting in Selma know we were going to determine our own destiny. We weren’t going to stop until we became registered voters,” said Reese who died at age 88 on April 5, 2018, according to The Selma Times-Journal.
In 2000, more than three miles of U.S. 80 – the route taken during the Montgomery to Selma march in 1965 – was named for Reese. It’s called the “Frederick D. Reese Parkway.” A few years ago, a town in Indiana named a school after him, the F.D. Reese Christian Academy. The school’s motto is: “We are proud to be named after a living civil rights legend.”
Did the nation’s commitment to segregation slowly sputter and die because Americans from all walks of life aimed to change the laws? Change did not just happen, in other words. One glaring fact surfaces as you sort through the lives of those who changed the political landscape in Selma, as well as those who are currently changing the political terrain in Ferguson. Laws change because many people struggle to change them.
Or this how President Johnson put it in a speech he delivered after Reeb’s death on March 15, 1965. “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”