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.
"I got on a plane, and I was in Selma on Tuesday," he said. "It's pretty tragic what happened as soon as I got there."
Brave black families in Selma had agreed to open their homes to the ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns and others who answered the Rev. King's call for help. The day Schilling arrived — Tuesday, March 9 — organizers instructed him to go to a restaurant to meet other newly arrived clergy and receive directions to their host families' homes.
The Presbyterian pastor from California arrived at Walker's Cafe, a historically African-American restaurant. There he met Reeb and received written directions to the house where he would be staying.
He recalled that Reeb was handed his housing details, too. They stepped out of the cafe and Schilling read the note that instructed him to go to the left.
He remembered, "Reeb is reading his instructions and they say, 'Go right'." The two ministers parted ways.
Minutes later, Reeb and the two fellow Unitarian ministers he walked with — Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen — were cursed and then attacked by four white men. All three were badly hurt, Reeb the worst.
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