Winter  2002
Volume 6 Number 2

"A Witness to Truth"
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Eulogy 
for PTS Alum James J. Reeb

Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old African American civil rights activist, became the first martyr of the Selma, Alabama, campaign when a gunshot took his life. At his memorial service on February 26, 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced that a march from Selma to Montgomery would begin on March 7. As the peaceful walk began, however, marchers faced brutal attacks from law officers. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. then urgently called for concerned clergy and citizens to join the efforts.

James J. Reeb

The Reverend James J. Reeb, Princeton Seminary M.Div., Class of 1953, was one of those who responded to King's call. Reeb was a compassionate and sensitive man with a searching soul. After leaving PTS, he had served as a Presbyterian chaplain in a hospital in Philadelphia and then as an assistant pastor for a Unitarian Universalist church in Washington, D.C., before finding his place as a Quaker working with a lower-income housing project in Boston.

For more information regarding the Selma, Alabama, campaign,  visit these web sites:
National Park Services
Virtual Scholar

His efforts in the voting rights campaign in Alabama had not even spanned one day when white assailants attacked him on a Selma sidewalk, fatally injuring him. Reeb died on March 11, 1965, and his death seemed, at least in part, to be the motivation for President Lyndon Johnson's introduction of the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress four days later. Although the President invited King to attend the event, King refused, opting instead to offer Reeb's eulogy in Brown Chapel in Selma that day. An abridged version of King's eulogy follows. It is an eloquent and profound tribute to Reeb. King's words also speak to this moment in our nation's history, when violence and justice, struggle and compassion, yet again beckon for our united attention.

"A Witness to the Truth"
by Martin Luther King Jr.

And if he should die,
Take his body, and cut it into little stars.
He will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night

These beautiful words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb. He entered the stage of history just 38 years ago, and in the brief years that he was privileged to act on this mortal stage, he played his part exceedingly well. James Reeb was martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers. His death was a result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.

The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers.

James Reeb could not be accused of being only concerned about justice for Negroes away from home. He and his family live in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a predominantly Negro community. [They] devoted their lives to aiding families in low-income housing areas. Again, we must ask the question: Why must good men die for doing good? "O Jerusalem, why did you murder the prophets and persecute those who come to preach your salvation?" So the Reverend James Reeb has something to say to all of us in his death.

Naturally, we are compelled to ask the question, Who killed James Reeb? The answer is simple and rather limited, when we think of the who. He was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder. There is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask this afternoon, that I asked a few days ago as we funeralized James Jackson. It is the question, What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.


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Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary | last updated 12/20/01

In This Issue


Renewing a Right Spirit

For Such a Time As This: PTS Campus Community Responds to September 11

Windows on a Shattered World

"A Witness to the Truth": Martin Luther King Jr.'s Eulogy for PTS Alum James J. Reeb


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