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Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Eulogy for the Reverend James Reeb

By Martin Luther King, Jr.


In January 1965, a campaign for voting rights launched in Selma, Alabama. Escalating police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators culminated in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 18. He died eight days later. In response, on March 7 activists set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local lawmakers. After refusing to disperse, the marchers were attacked with clubs and teargas. The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” James  Reeb (January 1, 1927—March 11, 1965) was among 40 Unitarian Universalist ministers who answered a call from Martin Luther King, Jr., for religious leaders to join him in Selma after the violent confrontation. On March 9, 400 religious leaders joined 2,000 African Americans to march over the bridge again to the site of the attack, where they kneeled and prayed before returning to Selma; the march had been cut short because of an order prohibiting it until protection could be provided to the marchers. That night, Rev. Reeb and two other UU ministers were attacked outside a whites-only restaurant. Rev. Reeb died two days later from his injuries. On March 21, a federally sanctioned march from Selma to Montgomery began. The march was limited to 300 people but swelled to 25,00 by the last day. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This eulogy for the Reverend James Reeb was delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Brown Chapel, Selma, Alabama, March 15, 1965.

All material copyright © Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; all material copyright renewed © Coretta Scott King and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. All rights reserved.

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 thirty-eight 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 goodwill 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.

James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.


So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder. His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.


God still has a way of bringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of this fine servant of God may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark state. This tragic death may lead our nation to substitute aristocracy of character for aristocracy of color. James Reeb may cause the whole citizenry of Alabama to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.

So in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. As preceding speakers have said so eloquently, we must not become bitter nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence; we must not lose faith in our white brothers who happen to be misguided. Somehow we must still believe that the most misguided among them will learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personalities.

I know our hearts, all of the sympathy that we can muster, go out to Mrs. Reeb and the children. This is the second time within the last two weeks I’ve had to stand in this state, in the black belt of Alabama, to eulogize individuals who have been brutally murdered. It is never an easy experience. In these difficult moments one searches for words of consolation for the family and friends, all of us, as we go on in today’s efforts.

As I have said, it is almost impossible to say anything that can totally console us in these difficult moments and remove the deep clouds of disappointment which are floating in our mental skies. But I hope that we can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not an aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men die and poor men die; merchants die and maids die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent; it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.

I hope we can also find some consolation in the great affirmations of religion, which tell us that death is not the end. Whether we call it “immortality of influence,” whether we think of it—immortality—in terms of continued personal existence, somewhere there is something in our faith that reminds us that death is not a period which ends this great sentence of life but a comma that punctuates it to a loftier significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness but an open door which leads men into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be our sustaining power during these trying days.

At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its deep and painful moments. Like the ever-fl owing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flower. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. Through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, transform dark and desolate perils into sunlit paths of inner peace.


One day the history of this great period of social change will be written in all of its completeness. On that bright day our nation will recognize its real heroes. They will be thousands of dedicated men and women with a noble sense of purpose that enables them to face fury and hostile mobs with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneers. They will be faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, who have temporarily left behind the towers of learning to storm the barricades of violence. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old Negro woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity, and with the people who decided not to ride the segregated buses, who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” They will be ministers of the gospel, priests, rabbis, and nuns, who are willing to march for freedom, to go to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know from these dedicated children of God courageously protesting segregation, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream, standing up with the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. When this glorious story is written, the name of James Reeb will stand as a shining example of manhood at its best.

So I can say to you this afternoon, my friends, that in spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period, something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away. Out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened. Those at the bottom of society, shirtless and barefoot people of the land, are developing a new sense of somebodyness, carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. “People who stand in darkness have seen a great light.” Here and there an individual or group dares to love and rises to the majestic height of moral maturity.

Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted, the easygoing optimism of yesteryear is impossible. Granted, that those who pioneered in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden; the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted, that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless seas. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.


I say, in conclusion, the greatest tribute that we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish because his life—like the Schubert “Unfinished Symphony”—was cut off at an early age. We have the challenge and charge to continue. We must work right here in Alabama, and all over the United States, till men everywhere will respect the dignity and worth of human personalities. We must work with all our hearts to establish a society where men will be—that “out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.” We must work with determination for that great day. “Justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We must work right here, where “every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” We must work to make the Declaration of Independence real in our everyday lives.

If we will do this, we will be able—right here in Alabama, right here in the Deep South, right here in the United States—to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. We will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children—as expressed so beautifully in this marvelous ecumenical service—all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands in unity and brotherhood to bring about the bright day of the brotherhood of man under the guidance of the fatherhood of God.

So we thank God for the life of James Reeb. We thank God for his goodness. We thank God that he was willing to lay down his life in order to redeem the soul of our nation. So I say—so Horatio said as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet—“Good night sweet prince: may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”

All material copyright © Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; all material copyright renewed © Coretta Scott King and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. All rights reserved.

About the Author

2544The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement, was among the twentieth century’s most influential figures. One of the greatest orators in US history, King also authored several books, including Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and Why We Can’t Wait. His speeches, sermons, and writings are inspirational and timeless. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

* The exact lines from the play are “And, when he shall die, / Take him and cut him out in little stars.”

The exact line from the play is “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

From a recording made by Carl Benkert and originally transcribed by UU World.