CASPER, Wyo. — Reverend James Reeb grew up in Casper, graduating from Natrona County High School in 1945.
Reeb’s name is well-known throughout the country, particularly in the American south. But his story is not as widely known and remembered in the place where he grew up.
“His life is celebrated more in other communities,” his grand daughter Leah Reeb Varela says.
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A new mural project already underway in downtown Casper aims to change that.
“I really hadn’t heard the story,” the mural’s artist Tony Elmore said, though he learned a little about Reeb in the film “Selma.”
“It is very under-told. A lot of people in Casper don’t know.”
Those who do know Reeb’s name are likely to think of his murder, which was a major event in the 1960s civil rights movement.
National Public Radio journalists Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace uncovered new details of his murder which they shared in a podcast called “White Lies.” Those journalists will be involved in events surrounding the Aug. 28 mural reveal in Casper. (Details below.)
Varela explained that her grandfather had been working in Boston to help secure things like housing for minorities in 1965.
On February 26 of that year, civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by a state trooper during a peaceful march in Alabama.
What came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” followed upon the heels of Jackson’s murder. A march which took place on March 7 led to state troopers and other law enforcement attacking the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, beating Amelia Boynton Robinson unconscious.
Reeb then flew to Alabama to participate in a march two days later from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol of Montgomery.
“He traveled down from Boston to Selma to participate in this non-violent march,” Varela said.
Martin Luther King, Jr. led this March 9 protest, which was calling for black voting rights.
“Troopers blocked the march and marchers retreated to a church,” Varela said.
Reeb was initially supposed to travel back to Boston but when MLK asked people to stay, Reeb committed to doing so. That evening, he went to dinner with two other Unitarian Universalist ministers.
“He and his two friends took a wrong turn leaving a cafe,” Varela said. “They were attacked by well known white supremacists.”
He died two days later from injuries he sustained in the attack.
“He was hit in the head and died of a blood clot,” Varela explained.
She added that one reason her grandfather is remembered is because he was among the first white men killed in the civil rights movement.
While this is certainly an important part of his legacy, with President Lyndon Baines Johnson invoking his name when presenting a draft of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the United States Congress, Varela says her grandfather’s legacy is about his life as a whole.
“James Reeb was more than just his murder and his death,” she said. “He was heavily involved socially and he was very passionate.”
Varela is the daughter of Reeb’s oldest son John.
“I never had the pleasure of meeting him,” she said, adding that she’s had to piece together a sense for who her grandfather was through discussions with her family.
“He did a lot of social work as a youth,” Varela said, adding that he spent time working with a former North Casper Boys club, assisting mostly minority youth in the juvenile system.
“I think something there sparked him,” she added.
Working to assist minorities became a theme throughout his entire life. After graduating from NC, Reeb spent a brief stint in the army, despite the fact that his interest in becoming a minister exempted him from military service.
Varela says that he attend some classes at Casper College before enrolling at St. Olaf’s College to study theology. After completing his studies at St. Olaf’s in 1950, he entered the Princeton Theological Seminary, graduating in 1953.
Reeb was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and returned to Casper to serve as a minister at the First Presbyterian Church.
He then moved to Philadelphia to work as a hospital chaplain there. Reeb switched his ministry over to the Unitarian Universalist church around this time and also began to work with the YMCA.
There, he worked in an integration role, Varela explained.
“Most of the people he served were poor minorities,” she said.
Reeb then worked as a minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C.
It was in 1964 that he moved to Boston to work to help desegregate housing, living in the mostly black Roxbury area.
While this is just a sketch of Reeb’s life, Elmore conducted a lot of research as he prepared to paint the mural.
“Reeb lived a life of serving others,” Elmore said. “He was a humble, average man who cared greatly about people’s needs.”
He found details of Reeb’s life and attended a family gathering where he shared what he was thinking about doing for the mural.
“When my grandma turned 90, he got to come over,” Varela said. “He has incorporated our feedback throughout the entire project.”
“That has been a really great thing for us. Tony has been fabulous.”
Both Verala and Elmore mentioned something similar about Reeb — a love for rock hunting in Wyoming.
“He was a big, avid outdoorsman,” Varela said, adding that Reeb spent time collecting fossils with her father when he was a boy.
Small stories like this will get incorporated into Elmore’s mural design.
“I have a couple of small stories of rock-hunting and the geology and landscape of Wyoming,” Elmore said.
Overall, the mural attempts to integrate many aspects and stories of Reeb’s life.
“What I wanted to do with the mural is tell people these stories that led up to his murder,” Elmore said “It’s kind of a chronological montage of his life.”
Varela says that she has tried to imagine her grandfather’s mindset growing up, adding that family members told her he was always socially conscious.
“When he was young he had rheumatic fever,” she said, adding that Reeb also had problems with his vision. “There were accounts he was made fun of as a child.”
“I think to myself, ‘How did that not affect you?'” Verla said.
She added that her grandfather was always “nice and kind and humane to people.”
Varela says she thinks Reeb would be surprised to learn that someone would think to do a mural of his life.
“He didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to himself,” she said. “He would never expect something like this in his honor.”
But his life serves as an example every bit as relevant in 2019 as it was when he died 54 years ago.
“I think he would be equally involved today as he was then,” Varela says. “Those sorts of injustices stand all over the country.”
While Reeb’s attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury in December of 1965, NPR’s “White Lies” podcast brings new details to light.
Those journalists will be at a 6:30 pm Wednesday, Aug. 28 “Storytelling & Panel Discussion” hosted by “The Table” at the Lyric Theater in Casper. Members of Reeb’s family will also particpate.
That discussion will follow the public reveal of the mural at 5:30 pm.
Elmore has been busy painting the mural on the east-facing wall at 225 South David Street.
That location was selected with a few things in mind.
An existing mural done by Jesse Bell on the north-facing wall is already finished.
Varela says that a few years back, there was “discussion of making that alley way into a pedestrian corridor.”
“This might be a great opportunity to continue that project,” she said.
The building’s owner, Peter Wold, donated the space and has helped provide water, power and restroom access to Elmore as he works.
The mural project will add to a handful of other things in Casper done in Reeb’s honor.
The Wyoming Food for Thought Project is housed in the old Winter Memorial Presbyterian Church in North Casper, where Varela says her grandparents met.
While that church was vacant for a while, Varela says that Wyo. Food for Thought has revived the space and the James Reeb Memorial Playground and Park, which was dedicated in the 1970s.
Casper College also offers a James Reeb scholarship, which Varela mentions in this article she penned for the college.
Casper’s Unitarian Universalist Church has also worked to support the mural project.
Varela said that her grandfather’s ashes were spread in the Shirley Basin.
Elmore says he hopes that the finished mural will serve as a kind of daily reminder to those who pass by it.
He’s chosen a color scheme that features various shades of yellow and some light blues.
“I want it to stand out visually, feel warm and alive,” Elmore says.
“I hope that this mural can inspire people on a daily basis to feel unified, to care for one another and to put other people first.”
“What could I do to make a difference in somebody’s life today?”
NOTE: This story was originally published on Aug. 14, 2019. Oil City is re-running the post on Martin Luther King Jr. Day due to Reeb’s connection with the Civil Rights movement.