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Don Schilling

In March, Don Schilling's thoughts turn to Selma, Ala.

Don and Dee Schilling at their home in Sebastopol. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

Forty-eight years ago today, a courageous minister named James Reeb died in Alabama from wounds inflicted by club-swinging locals enraged by the presence of out-of-state agitators for the voting rights of black people.

Many Americans have forgotten Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist from Boston, if they were ever aware of him at all. Sebastopol's Don Schilling thinks of him often.

Minutes before the attack on Reeb, Schilling stood outside a Selma cafe and spoke with the man, a new friend.

Both had rushed to Alabama at the urging of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who pleaded for people of conscience to come reinforce the nonviolent civil-rights marchers who had been brutalized by Alabama troopers and local deputies at Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

“He especially wanted clergy to come,” Schilling said at the home he shares with Dee, his wife of 52 years. She's the social-justice attorney who in the 1980s exposed conditions at the old Sonoma County jail so unsafe that the county was ordered to make wholesale changes and build a new one.

In 1965, Don Schilling was the 32-year-old co-pastor at the mostly black St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. He met the Rev. King a few years earlier and had witnessed his fervor while studying at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.

A conversation involving King and a few seminary students “was literally transforming to me,” Schilling said.

He made quick travel plans when King put out an appeal for help after armed, uniformed officers assaulted about 600 nonviolent marchers on Bloody Sunday. They were trying to carry from Selma to Alabama's capital, Montgomery, their quest to end discriminatory voting practices against blacks.

The Schillings watched the disgrace on the Sunday evening news.

“There it was, all in living color. It was horrible,” said the tall, lean and thoughtful Schilling. His congregation in Marin City had been enthusiastic about him going to Mississippi in 1964 to confront abuse of black voters, and church members were equally eager for him to return to the South following Black Sunday.

“I got on a plane, and I was in Selma on Tuesday,” he said. “It's pretty tragic what happened as soon as I got there.”

Brave black families in Selma had agreed to open their homes to the ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns and others who answered the Rev. King's call for help. The day Schilling arrived — Tuesday, March 9 — organizers instructed him to go to a restaurant to meet other newly arrived clergy and receive directions to their host families' homes.

The Presbyterian pastor from California arrived at Walker's Cafe, a historically African-American restaurant. There he met Reeb and received written directions to the house where he would be staying.

He recalled that Reeb was handed his housing details, too. They stepped out of the cafe and Schilling read the note that instructed him to go to the left.

He remembered, “Reeb is reading his instructions and they say, 'Go right'.” The two ministers parted ways.

Minutes later, Reeb and the two fellow Unitarian ministers he walked with — Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen — were cursed and then attacked by four white men. All three were badly hurt, Reeb the worst.

Clubbed to the head, he was taken 90 miles by ambulance to a hospital in Birmingham. The 38-year-old father of four died there two days later, on March 11, 1965.

Reeb's killing left Schilling sickened and heartsick, but it also strengthened his resolve. He didn't leave Alabama but stayed on to plead with local churches to stand up for equal treatment of blacks. He also took part in attempted but turned-back marches on the Selma courthouse.

Coming so soon after after Black Sunday, the fatal beating of Reeb outraged people across the country and inspired many to join in the movement to end the Jim Crow laws restricting black Americans' right to vote.

Just three days after Reeb died — March 15, 1965 — President Lyndon Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress to advocate passage of a new Voting Rights Act. He said:

“At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man — a man of God — was killed.”

When Schilling returned to Marin City, his co-pastor, James Symons, took his place in Selma. Symons was there when about 8,000 people gathered at the landmark Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to launch another march to Montgomery.

This time they passed before the protective gaze of FBI agents, U.S. marshals and nearly 4,000 army and Alabama National Guard troops. The march reached the statehouse in Montgomery on March 25 and from the steps Dr. King told the crowd of many thousands:

“The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

Nearly 50 years later, Schilling is retired from the ministry and from a program he and his wife created to provide positive mentoring for young people who seemed headed for trouble. Schilling still goes into the county jail regularly to counsel inmates.

He said he is a bit sorry he wasn't in Alabama for the successful march from Selma. But he is glad his co-pastor was there, and he's proud he was in the state earlier, when James Reeb sacrificed his life to the cause.

“It wasn't long after that the Voting Rights Act was passed,” he said. “So I think that what we did in Selma was pivotal to the life of the nation.”

With the U.S. Supreme Court seemingly posed to strike down a portion of the act, Schilling said, the work continues.

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