(c) by Mary Griggs

As we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I would like to share one of my favorite speeches from Dr. King. He spoke following the death of white minister who was murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965.  As James Reeb returned from dinner one night while organizing the second march to Montgomery, he was attacked by a group of four white men who struck his head with a heavy stick, completely crushing his skull on the left side.  He died a few days later.

In commenting on Reeb’s death, Dr. King spoke eloquently of the climate that led to his death.  His words speak to how acceptance the status quo contribute to the climate that daily marginalizes and brings harm to minority communities.  Here are King’s words, delivered at Reeb’s memorial service:

“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and 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 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’ 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, 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.”