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1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

-Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2 thoughts on “1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration”

  1. Bruce Battle says:

    My Mom first told me of the Jeremiah Reeves incident when I was 5 or 6 years old. My family moved to Pacoima California when I was 11 years old. The Watts Riot had just ended and I had not turned 12 years old yet. I’m

  2. Bruce Battle says:

    I was born in Montgomery Alabama in 1953. Many of these incidents are still very fresh in my mind. Racism is very much alive.

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