- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - John Reeb stood with his cane in the hallway of the Iris Theatre in January, greeting those who walked into theater No. 3.

Leaning against the wall next to John was a large black-and-white photograph. It was of a young man with short, dark hair slicked to the left, rimmed circular glasses and a bow tie.

The man was John’s father, James Reeb.

Standing next to John were his daughters, Leah and Corrie. They were also greeting the friends, faculty members and locals whom they had invited to the Casper premiere of the film “Selma.”

The movie is about the civil rights movement in the South, specifically Alabama, when Martin Luther King Jr. pushed for voting rights for blacks, culminating in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

The family was at the theater because James Reeb had played an important role in this history.

A white minister raised in Casper, James was murdered by white supremacists during the Selma protests. Word of his death spread worldwide and influenced Congress’ decision to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

John, now 62, was 13 at the time of his father’s death, the oldest of James’ four children.

The film opened just months before the 50th anniversary of the march. Its cast includes Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo (who plays Martin Luther King Jr.), along with an actor named Jeremy Strong, who portrays the slender man with short dark hair and circular glasses.

“My grandfather plays a very small part in this movie, but to us, it’s really large,” Leah told the crowd moments before the lights went down. “Just look for the man with the bow tie.”

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James Reeb moved to Casper his freshman year of high school. He fell in love with the state and considered it his home.

Reeb, whose last name was Rape when he first moved to Casper, was tall and scrawny with crossed eyes. He was teased for these reasons, shaping his empathetic nature and drive for equality.

He attended Casper College, where he met his wife, Marie, a Casper native, and was ordained at First Presbyterian Church, where he ministered.

He served in the Army, attended school in Minnesota (where he changed his last name to Reeb), went to Princeton and settled on the East Coast, moving from New Jersey, to Philadelphia, to Washington D.C., to Boston.

Over the years, he worked as a pastor and minister, striving for equal rights for minorities.

In 1964, Reeb moved the family from Washington, D.C., to Boston. He took a pay cut and decided to join the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that helped minorities find low-income housing and assisted children in receiving good schooling.

“So my dad being my dad said, ‘I can only do my best work at this job if we live in the same area where we are going to be doing this work,’” John said. “So we moved (from the suburbs of D.C.) to the Roxbury ghetto of Boston.”

John remembers being one of five white children in a school of a couple thousand. He lived in a town where cars were stripped and left to burn on the streets, where furniture was kept in the yard, where a man lived under their front porch.

The Reebs lived in Boston for seven months. In March of 1965, James heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for ministers and clergymen of all beliefs and races to travel to Alabama and march from Selma to Montgomery.

“It didn’t take him much time to make up his mind that this was what he had to do,” John said. “Maybe a day.”

“When he heard (of what was going on in Alabama), he came home and basically told my mom, ‘This isn’t right what’s happening. I’ve got to go.’”

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Anne Reeb is John’s younger sister. She was only 5 years old when her father was murdered.

She remembers her mom saying Dad had been hurt and wasn’t coming home. At that age, it was very difficult to understand the concept of murder and death. She remembers thinking her father was going to show up again one day.

Anne, now 55, lives in California. Last year, she received a voice mail from Plan B Productions saying that Paramount Pictures had made a movie and that her father’s death was portrayed in the film.

It was sensitive material, and Paramount was willing to provide a private screening for the Reeb family in advance of the release.

They scheduled the screening for Dec. 22 at The Rialto in Casper. The film was flown from Los Angeles in a locked box with a security guard at its side. It was on a timed hard drive, meaning the movie had to start in a one-hour window.

Around 35 members of the family met before the film at the home of Marie Reeb, James’ widow, who is now 85.

Some were nervous. Some didn’t know what to feel.

“I took a Valium just so I didn’t fly out of the seat,” John said. “I didn’t know from start to finish what I was going to see.”

Anne and her sister, Karen, had already seen the film as special guests at a Nov. 16 premiere in San Francisco. The director of the film, Ana DuVernay, along with Oyelowo and Oprah, were also in attendance.

“And all of a sudden I felt this hand in mine, and it was Oprah,” Anne said. “She whispered over to me, ‘It was destiny. Your father being there was destiny.’ That just really hit home and touched my heart.”

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It happened in Selma on the night of March 9, 1965. James Reeb walked out of a cafe with two ministers at his side.

They were met by four white supremacists, who beat the three men with clubs, Reeb receiving the worst of the attack.

Reeb died two days later from severe brain damage. News of his death spread worldwide. King made a speech in his honor. There were countless memorials all across the country, including one at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., where Reeb was an associate pastor.

“I remember standing at the side door (of the church). I don’t know how I got there by myself, and then all of a sudden, here was (Vice President) Hubert Humphrey shaking my hand,” John said. “I look up and go, ‘Oh, you’re Hubert Humphrey.’ We talked for a few minutes. He said, ‘Sorry to hear about your dad.’ Then Ted Kennedy came up to me.

“I was in awe of the number of people that came, and the positions that they held. I just didn’t know they cared. I just didn’t realize one man would spark or would generate this much publicity.”

In the days after Reeb’s death, reporters camped outside his family’s Boston home. Men from the American Friends Service Committee guarded the door to keep the media away.

President Lyndon B. Johnson contacted Marie to send his condolences and offered to fly the family anywhere in the country in a private jet.

There was no sense staying in Boston anymore.

“So we said, ‘We want to go home,’” John said. “We wanted to go to Wyoming.”

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There are at least 10 boxes in Marie Reeb’s Casper home. She saved everything associated with her husband’s murder.

There are countless newspaper clippings with the family’s picture, headlines that read, “Rev. Reeb Dies from Savage Beating in Selma,” ”King Leads 3,500 Silent Marchers in Tribute to Reeb,” ”LBJ Sends AF Jet for Reeb’s Widow,” ”Three Whites Are Innocent of Reeb Death.”

There are boxes full of mail, both love and hate, from all over the world. Some came with checks, from $5 to $100.

“One war veteran even sent his Purple Heart in the mail, saying, “Your dad was a greater man than I was,’” John said.

Reeb’s sermons are boxed away. So are the glasses he was wearing at the time of the beating.

There’s the maroon guestbook from the D.C. memorial, signed by Humphrey and Kennedy. There’s a gold pen that reads “Lyndon B. Johnson White House,” which was given to the children on the private jet back to Casper. There’s even a Christmas card from the King family.

James Reeb was cremated. His ashes were flown to Casper and spread over one of his favorite locations, Shirley Basin.

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John was more relaxed to see the movie the second time. He sat toward the back next to his family.

“I know the movie is not about my dad. It’s about a movement that happened in 1965 for blacks in the South to get their voting rights,” John said before the film. “My dad happens to be a person who went and got murdered.”

An hour into the movie, the man with short, dark hair slicked to the left, rimmed circular glasses and a bow tie appeared on the screen.

John scooted toward the edge of his seat, his chin resting on his cane. He was smiling.

Moments later, that character walked out of a cafe. And after the scene, John wiped a tear from his eye.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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