Civil Rights 1950s

In the 1950’s segregation was widely accepted throughout the nation. It was required by law in most southern states which still operated under the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of “Separate but Equal” accommodations. But by 1952 the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. In that year the Supreme Court heard a number of school-segregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. In 1954 they decided unanimously that segregation was unconstitutional. In September one small black child walked up the steps of the school house, guided by federal marshals. A disturbing picture for most Americans in the serene fifties. But there was more to come.

On September 3, 1957, a group of nine black students were kept from entering Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, by the National Guard.
It wasn’t until President Eisenhower ordered, 1,000 paratroopers and 10,000 National Guardsmen to Little Rock, that Central High was desegregated. All through the 50’s and early 60’s the civil rights movement simmered. Led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who did not believe in violence, the black residents of Montgomery and Birmingham took small steps toward equality.

They were helped by dedicated men and women of other races. One was Ruffles Johns, from New Castle who understood that racism was at odds with his Christian faith. He ran a clothing store in Greensboro, N. C. where he hired African Americans, served them in his store and spoke publicly against the ill treatment they suffered. He received threats at home. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his property. His response? Fight back.

The Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro was a popular noontime spot. However. blacks were forbidden to sit at the counter. Johns saw it as the perfect place to test the laws. He encouraged three black students to sit at the lunch counter and quietly demand to be served. With each passing day, more African-Americans came to sit at Woolworth’s. The ripples from this simple act spread far beyond North Carolina.

The Reverend James Reeb was the son of Mary Fox Rape of Ellwood City and Harry Rape of Zelienople. Mr. Rape worked in the oil field there, and eventually settled in Casper, Wyoming, where their only son James, grew up. He attended St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota and became assistant pastor at the All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Washington D. C. But he found the work too limiting. Although he was married and the father of four, he gave up his Washington duties, and took a job with the American Friends Service Committee in Boston, where he directed the group’s low income housing project. He bought a house in Boston’s Negro section of Roxbury, and sent his children to the public schools.

In March of 1965 he joined the group of protestors in a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. As the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma they were met by police and state troopers, some on horseback, with orders from Governor George Wallace to stop the march. They fired tear gas into the crowd, and severely beat protesters.

King asked anyone who could to remain in Selma for another march. James Reeb was one of many who agreed to stay. That night, he and two friends went to dinner at a black cafe. As they left the restaurant, they took a wrong turn. As they passed the Silver Moon Cafe, a hangout for whites, Reeb was hit with a club. He was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham two hours away. He was dead on arrival.

The country was outraged by the events at Selma.
A week after Reeb’s death, the federal judge ruled that the state could not block the march. President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to give protection to the marchers. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. James Reeb stood up for his convictions. He gave his life and changed the life of many including his own family. (FBI reopens Reeb case in 2010)

James Reeb’s name was originally Rape. He changed to Reeb when he went to Washington. He is the cousin of former District Attorney Kenneth Fox.