In March, Don Schilling's thoughts turn to Selma, Ala.

  • Don and Dee Schilling at their home in Sebastopol, Calif., on March 8, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Forty-eight years ago today, a courageous minister named James Reeb died in Alabama from wounds inflicted by club-swinging locals enraged by the presence of out-of-state agitators for the voting rights of black people.

Many Americans have forgotten Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist from Boston, if they were ever aware of him at all. Sebastopol's Don Schilling thinks of him often.

Minutes before the attack on Reeb, Schilling stood outside a Selma cafe and spoke with the man, a new friend.

Both had rushed to Alabama at the urging of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who pleaded for people of conscience to come reinforce the nonviolent civil-rights marchers who had been brutalized by Alabama troopers and local deputies at Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

"He especially wanted clergy to come," Schilling said at the home he shares with Dee, his wife of 52 years. She's the social-justice attorney who in the 1980s exposed conditions at the old Sonoma County jail so unsafe that the county was ordered to make wholesale changes and build a new one.

In 1965, Don Schilling was the 32-year-old co-pastor at the mostly black St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. He met the Rev. King a few years earlier and had witnessed his fervor while studying at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.

A conversation involving King and a few seminary students "was literally transforming to me," Schilling said.

He made quick travel plans when King put out an appeal for help after armed, uniformed officers assaulted about 600 nonviolent marchers on Bloody Sunday. They were trying to carry from Selma to Alabama's capital, Montgomery, their quest to end discriminatory voting practices against blacks.

The Schillings watched the disgrace on the Sunday evening news.

"There it was, all in living color. It was horrible," said the tall, lean and thoughtful Schilling. His congregation in Marin City had been enthusiastic about him going to Mississippi in 1964 to confront abuse of black voters, and church members were equally eager for him to return to the South following Black Sunday.

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