Meet Selma’s lost heroes, one black, two white. Fifty years after their deaths, their families are still reckoning with history, still weighing the price they had to pay.
By Amy K. Nelson
Viola Liuzzo, 39, shot by members of the KKK
James Reeb, 38, beaten severely by white segregationists
Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, beaten and shot by an Alabama State Trooper
The beige ballroom in Birmingham, Alabama, is filled with mostly white people listening to the daughter of a white woman who was murdered by the KKK.
Penny Liuzzo and her sister Sally had just accepted an award honoring their mother, Viola, at a dinner for the martyrs of Selma on Friday night. Viola, a mother of five, got in her car and drove from Detroit after watching the beatings and tear gas on the bridge. She spent weeks in Alabama, helping shuttle marchers home and back until one night when the KKK chased her down highway 80, where they shot her in the head execution-style.
Standing at the dais with a spotlight beaming down on her face, Penny is about to encapsulate the conflicted meaning of this weekend for a select group in the room. Along with Viola, two men were murdered in 1965, one black, one white. Their three families have lived in relative anonymity and under the shadow of Selma for the past 50 years. All that pain, and the different ways in which it has manifested itself over generations, is packed tightly into this ballroom.
Penny Liuzzo takes a breath, then acknowledges how deep divisions remain in this country without having to ever say the words Ferguson, Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court, Shelby County, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice. Without having to say Selma. “It feels like we’re going backwards,” she says. “I am going to keep fighting this fight until the last breath in my body.”
What is your identity when a large part of your life is defined by someone being murdered during one of the most important and infamous civil rights moments in history? How do you measure that loss today, in 2015, when the movement around it seems to have stalled? What, for that matter, do you do with your life after history has claimed someone close to you?
If you are a widow, like Marie Reeb, the wife of white minister James Reeb, who was murdered two days after arriving in Selma, you quietly move on, raise your children and never revisit the time and place of your husband’s murder. If you’re the children, you think of that place and those people in that town as the boogeyman. You are haunted and scared of that place, and by people you encounter who carry even the slightest Southern twang. You start to define us vs. them.
If you are his sister, you work hard at trying to feel that your brother died for a larger cause, but you see everything around you suddenly reverting, as if 1965 wants to remind everyone of its return.
And if you are the men who survived as heroes in part because of the martyr’s death? You live with guilt, or you move to another country, you remarry, repackage your life into anything else but 1965. And when the 50th anniversary arrives, all the ghosts and boogeymen and guilt and hero worship and pain, all of it, travels with you back to Selma, to the place you visit under the cover of your loved one’s martyrdom, or heroism. And when you get there you’re asked to confront the hardest question of all: Was it worth it?
Everyone has taken a different path back to Selma. But the two survivors of the attack on James Reeb are back because of the Reeb family. In 1965, Orloff Miller was a white Unitarian Universalist minister living in Boston when he went to Selma after seeing the horrific images on television of Bloody Sunday, men and women being beaten and teargassed after attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in protest. He shared a plane ride with Jim Reeb, and was attacked along with Clark Olsen — another white UU minister — just two nights later. Reeb died, Miller and Olsen survived. Miller says he felt guilty for years, and he’s only here now because he wants to see Marie Reeb — Jim’s widow. They last spoke in 1975, on the 10th anniversary. Olsen hasn’t seen Marie since the hospital visit when Reeb — clubbed over the head and beaten viciously after the three men finished dinner at a black restaurant in town — was already brain-dead. All three are in their 80s and have trekked here to restart their story, to redefine what Selma means, to see each other.
Olsen always regretted running. He’s lived with that ever since and in recent years has tried to come to terms with his place in history, speaking to students whenever he can, going back to Selma. The trauma of that night is in part what haunts most; it was pure agony getting Reeb to a hospital. The men were terrified for their lives, afraid to ask anyone white in the town for assistance. They took Reeb to a black doctor who said he had to get to a hospital. An ambulance gave them a ride, but a flat tire on an abandoned road halted the journey, with a car filled with white men trailing them. The ambulance drove back to town on the rim. It took the trio four hours to eventually get to Birmingham, a lifetime for someone with a brain injury. Olsen held Reeb’s hand throughout, while Miller took copious notes; he was that present in the moment to know how crucial the details would be for any trial, even if an all-white jury would later acquit the attackers. Olsen and Reeb held hands until Reeb lost consciousness. “So really, “Anne Reeb, one of Jim’s daughters says, “Clark felt his last human touch of life.”
Miller and his son, Orloff Jr., have been estranged for six years. Miller has always leaned extremely left politically; he had Jr. flag-burning by age 4, and was active in movements long before they became stamps. From AIDS to Vietnam and reaching back to Selma, Miller was always on the front lines. Then he met a German woman and 26 years ago began a new life overseas. He recently had brain surgery where fluid is drained down his spine; he also has Parkinson’s. His doctor told him not to travel. Father and son had begun communicating more regularly recently and Jr. offered to visit Selma in his father’s place. Miller left the States for good six years ago, planning on never coming back. He changed his mind in November.
“When I heard the Reebs would be here, I had to be here,” Miller tells me. “I had wanted to see them once again and see what had happened in their lives. I had always felt a certain sense of guilt that I had survived and their husband had not, their father had not, their grandpa had not. We needed to start a new relationship, and that’s happened.”
Says Orloff Jr.: “I think he’s here to spite his health. That’s how much it means to him. It’s a defining moment for his life. It’s something he’s been working through himself, ever since.”
Marika Olsen knew her father wasn’t a household name, but she lived with the weight of being a child of a civil rights hero. She was terrified of Selma; it represented everything that was bad and was haunted by what happened to her father. In 1998 Marika was working as a producer for CNN and brought her father back for the first time since the trial to try to confront one of the attackers. She found people in town didn’t want to rehash Selma, that the town “still hadn’t come to terms with its past and made peace with it.” She found one of the men acquitted after the attack—who ran a used car lot — and she wanted to confront him with her dad on camera. Clark was paralyzed by fear so Marika went, mic’d up, and asked the man about Jim Reeb, about her father. The man denied knowing anything, said it was a long time ago, and backed away. Marika was dejected. “To me, every child has their version of the boogeyman, and I grew up with Selma and injustice and the men who beat up my father as being the equivalent of the boogeyman,” she says. “These haunted me as a kid. I felt like I could not rest, spiritually, in some ways, unless I confronted those demons. Even though they were my father’s demons, they had become mine as well.”
And it’s never fully left. “It definitely haunted me and it completely haunts me in some ways now, because 50 years later we’re still fighting the same fight.”
Orloff Jr. is a soft-spoken man who works as a historical archivist. He was 9 years old in 1965 and remembers seeing his father’s black and blue beaten face on television, terrified at what had happened. When Miller flew back to Boston, Orloff Jr. was there with his mother to greet him on the tarmac, the flood of camera lights a memory still distinct. For decades, Selma and the people who represented Selma engendered fear and mistrust and helped build strong biases in Orloff Jr.’s mind. “If little kids of my generation had the boogeyman that took the form of Russians with fur hats, [after Selma] they took the form of Southern drawl with a billy club,” Orloff Jr. says. “It’s something you have to unlearn and something you have to let go of. I’m not afraid of Selma now. Selma is another American place. I think a lot of people thought of it as a bastion for the bad guys.” Orloff Jr. feels uncomfortable with the celebration of the weekend, but he recognizes the significance of his father’s return. As he tries to eat his lunch in a loud, crowded hotel ballroom hosting a reunion, Orloff Jr. puts his fork down and thinks about whether it was all worth it. He begins to cry and quietly says that if his dad gets on the plane home to Germany and dies, that “if I don’t see him again, I know he’ll be happy. I’ll be happy.”
The fleeting moments are the ones that never really left. Miller says he came to terms years ago with much of what happened, but the lingering guilt of not just surviving, but the memories of those small moments have remained. The night of the attack, Miller had stepped outside the café to smoke a cigar just minutes before their assailants approached. He thinks that him being spotted outside a black restaurant tipped them off. The three ministers were headed back to the Brown Chapel AME Church — Martin Luther King Jr.’s headquarters — but walked in the wrong direction. Reeb was walking on the outside, closest to the curb, Miller was in the middle on the sidewalk, Olsen nearest the storefront. That’s when they heard, “Hey you niggers!” After the attack, Miller took out his small green notebook and took meticulous notes, a play-by-play of everything, including the ambulance ride, the flat tire, and then later the funeral, where King spoke. He wrote everything, including the racial epithet that was uttered right before four men with billy clubs beat the life out of Jim Reeb.
King had sent out a Western Union telegram the day after Bloody Sunday appealing to the nation’s clergy for their help, to come to Selma and march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge — again. Miller, Olsen, and Reeb were three of dozens who answered the call. The Universalist Unitarians have a long tradition of social justice and activism; Reeb was one of the passionate leaders of that movement, a pioneer and visionary. All three worked and lived within the black community, and after watching Bloody Sunday on their television and then receiving King’s cable, they all knew they had to go. Shortly before Reeb’s funeral, Miller was summoned to King’s motel, where he saw King standing in the lobby wearing “his short sleeves.” King asked Miller what had happened. “He stopped, gave his full attention to me — his full attention — and he asked a few questions and thanked us for being there,” Miller says. A year later, King spoke at the UU’s general assembly. Miller was waiting with King’s mother to get in an elevator when it opened; the UU’s president tried introducing the two men — but they already knew each other. Miller was able to introduce his wife to King. “She was mesmerized,” he says.
The Reebs had been living in Boston and had four young children. Marie Reeb was terrified when Jim left; she didn’t want him in Selma. He told his wife he couldn’t stand around and watch people get beaten. “I have to go,” he said. “I’ll be home in a day.” Jim kissed Marie goodbye on the curb at Logan Airport, the last time she saw her husband conscious. As soon as she heard about the attack, she flew down to Birmingham and went straight to the hospital.
“When I saw him lying there in the hospital bed next to the machines, I knew he was already gone,” she says. “I really believed him when he said ‘I’ll be home soon’ and here he was, lifeless.” After his death, Marie moved back to her native Wyoming, later remarried, and never revisited his death, or Selma. Over the years it had been telegraphed to Miller and Olsen not to reach out. In 50 years, Marie Reeb had contact only twice with the two men who survived, both times with Miller.
Emma Jean Jackson isn’t sure how to feel. She’s had to live with the death of her brother Jimmie Lee as a footnote, an afterthought; it was Reeb’s death, not Jackson’s, that President Johnson acknowledged to a national television audience when invoking the Voting Rights Act. But it was Jackson’s murder in nearby Marion by a white police officer who shot him in the stomach as he was protecting his mother during a peaceful voting-rights march that sparked the Bloody Sunday march. “It’s because it was a white man who died, that’s what it took,” Miller says. Emma isn’t sure it was worth the cost of her brother’s life. “Sometimes I have a feeling deep down that it was not worth it, because the same thing keeps happening over and over again,” she says. “It was maybe like a Band-Aid then. To me it has festered all over again.”
“I believe it was his destiny,” Anne Reeb tells me. She was 4 years old when her father died. It was difficult not having a father, and she wondered how her life would have been different had he survived. But as she learned more about him, “my heart was filled with a resolve that he was on a path all his life that led him to Selma.”
She said it was his passion and love for the cause that made him willing to die for it. “I can only love him for that courage and strong conviction. The voting-rights marches paved the way for the first African American president. So yes, for me, his daughter, it was worth it.” But for many, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to repeal part of the Voting Rights Act is reprehensible. “It’s an insult to my family and so many others who stood up for love and are still standing,” Anne says.
It’s early in the afternoon on Saturday and Clark Olsen has been going non-stop. Olsen lives in Asheville, North Carolina, now. He’s returned more than the others, but it’s always emotional. He had just been interviewed live on CNN in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and now he’s watching President Obama speak just blocks away from where they were attacked. He says his mind wandered to Jim during the speech. He’s asked, like all the others, if it was worth it. He says yes, that even though it’s very bad right now, he feels a wave of momentum. “I think what’s been celebrated today needed to be celebrated and will inspire a lot of people,” he says. “I’m really hopeful about that. It ain’t gonna happen without a lot of work, and I hope to contribute to that as long as I can.”
As he walks and talks he says he has hope; that it may take 10 to 20 years, but there will be more tangible change, that rights won’t continue to be stripped, that institutional disenfranchisement won’t continue forever. He says as long as he’s here, he’s going to keep trying to help the cause, to let people know who Jim was, why he died. Why they all came to Selma. Why they all came back.
The spot where Jim Reeb was murdered is an empty lot with a bail-bonds building and a mural and a marker, a white man’s face adorning the block at Selma and Washington Streets. It’s just after 5 p.m. on Saturday — just a few hours after the first black president spoke a few blocks away — and Marie Reeb walks to the site for the first time in her life. Her son John, who was 12 years old when his father died, embraces his mother as she cries. The entire family — 17 total, spanning three generations — collapses into one another, collectively crying, grieving. They lay a wreath, and locals and strangers — most of whom are black — gather in a circle around them as they read a dedication to their father and grandfather. Marie stands between Miller and Olsen, the two men embracing their friend’s widow. They don’t say much. “I couldn’t remember and neither could she whether we had talked in the hospital 50 years ago,” Olsen says. “We didn’t share much words, just the way she put her arms around me and she kept insisting on that. That was really nice. It was really nice, very nice.”
While at the marker, people continuously approach Miller and Olsen, thanking them. One woman from Atlanta had just watched Eyes on the Prize on YouTube before coming to Selma, and she recognized Miller. Her eyes are wide and she can’t stop smiling. “Thank you so much for your bravery, for the freedom fighters, for ride or die,” Corinne Collier, 32, says. “I just wanted to come and say thank you.” Miller is sweet and genuine and urges people who approach to keep fighting.
It’s Sunday morning at the church where Martin Luther King Jr. has a bust, with Liuzzo, Reeb, and Jackson’s names inscribed next to his, and his son, Martin III, addresses the room that includes Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Attorney General Eric Holder. The Olsens are in the front row.
It’s the same room where his father eulogized Jim Reeb 50 years ago, the same room where his father said that “the greatest tribute we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish.”
And nearly a lifetime later, King’s son picks up the baton as a large group outside the church watch on a Jumbotron.
“I’m not feeling like a tribute right now,” Martin III says.
“I find it challenging to celebrate… You think that we don’t understand that much of what happened in this town they’re trying to rescind in a new and more polished way? I would have never guessed that our Supreme Court would dismantle the Voting Rights Act. The language of Jim Crow has turned into the court capers of James Crow Jr., esquire. The results are the same, and that’s disenfranchisement. Today we shouldn’t be celebrating. We can’t celebrate yet.”
Marie Reeb is 85 years old. She has gotten through the weekend, visited the site of her husband’s murder, reunited with the men who survived and with the town she and her family will always be linked to. She has left Selma, and on a bus back to Atlanta Sunday night, her daughter Anne asks her if it was all worth it. She still speaks in present tense when talking about Jim. “When I think of my children, I find it hard to part with my husband and send him off into danger,” she says. “That is very hard for me. He was their light. But for the world, yes, it was worth it. Jim belonged to the world. And he’s in God’s hands now.”
All non-historical photographs by Amy K. Nelson. Black-and-white photographs by Bruce Davidson/Magnum.
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