The 1960s decade was probably the most dynamic period in terms of Civil Rights. States such as Alabama and Mississippi refused to enforce Federal laws preventing segregation. Freedom riders from the north began riding buses down south to protest. Sometime between June 21 and 22, 1964, three such riders - James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner - were shot to death at close range. A subsequent trial found members of the Mississippi White Knights of the KKK, the County Sherriff and local police force guilty of the crime. They received a slap on the wrist, and most escaped prison time. This tragedy helped to garner support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acts of 1965.
A lesser-known incident was the murder of Reverend James J. Reeb of Boston on March 9, 1965. Reeb was an American Unitarian Universalist minister and a Civil Rights activist in Washington DC. He and his family lived in poor Black communities where he felt he could do the most good. Reeb travelled to Selma, Alabama, to help with the Civil Rights movement. After leaving a "Negro" diner that he was helping to integrate, he was beaten to death by four white men. Reeb was not immediately admitted to a hospital, and two days later he died. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the murder as a cowardly act. Several days earlier, African-American Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death by Selma police during a racial disturbance. Although marchers attempted to go to the County Courthouse for a memorial service, they were stopped by local authorities.
In response to the violence in Selma, the Fellowship of Greenwich Clergy organized a march from the Second Congregational Church on East Putnam Avenue to the Lutheran Church on Field Point Road on March 13, 1965. Seven hundred residents joined Reverend Ralph G. Morris of Diamond Hill Church, Reverend John J. Hawkins of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and Reverend C. Gordon Beale of the Second Congregational Church in a peaceful and orderly march. Demonstrators included blacks and white alike.
SECOND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH circa 1879
COURTESY OF MS. ADALINE RUNDLE
At the end of the march, a memorial service was held at the Lutheran Church on Field Point Road for Reverend Reeb. Attendees were urged to support civil rights legislation and work to eliminate inequality in Greenwich. Senator Thomas Dodd sent a telegram sympathizing with the cause of the marchers. Reverend Stivers from Old Greenwich likened the movement to a revolution rooted in the religious traditions of brotherhood. He also condemned the violence in Selma. Although voting wasn't an issue in Greenwich, Reverend Stivers talked of inequality in housing and employment. Reverend Leon Burnham of Bethel A.M.E. Church urged residents to fight for adequate housing and education for all. Rabbi Moshe Davidowitz from Temple Sholom asked the congregation to fight for legislation to end discrimination. Although policemen were present to direct traffic, there were no incidents of violence and the activities ended peaceably.
This was not true of the march in Selma. Sherriff James C. Clark barred 500 black and white marchers from participating in a memorial service for Reverend Reeb. State Troopers were staged several blocks away as backup. KKK members were also in attendance, and several got rowdy and had to be carted away. Clark claimed the marchers would disrupt voter registration at the Courthouse. He said the marchers were offered a municipal stadium, but had turned down the offer. Marches and memorial services were being held all over the country. In response, prayer vigils were held in the streets of Selma. A federal judge intervened and filed an injunction to let the marchers proceed.
It seems only natural that clergy of all faiths would be at the forefront of the fight for Civil Rights. They led peaceful demonstrations, and called for treating all people (regardless of color) with dignity. Blacks should have equal rights when it came to employment, housing, education and health services. Discrimination should no longer be tolerated. People should be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by their individual character. These brave men were also victims of violence; but they stayed committed to their cause. It's because of their efforts that conditions improved. There is still a lot to be done, and there is no doubt people like these will be at the forefront.
The Greenwich Time