Home > Uncategorized > The little-known legal lynching that sparked the civil rights movement – posted 3/15/2023

The little-known legal lynching that sparked the civil rights movement – posted 3/15/2023

In Greenwood Mississippi, there is a statue of Emmett Till that pays homage to the 14 year old who was murdered in the summer of 1955. Till’s murder fueled the burgeoning civil rights movement. There is now a movie, Till, starring Danielle Deadwyler, which recreates the story. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, forced public awareness by having an open coffin funeral that revealed Emmett’s horrific injuries. The photos of Till shocked the conscience of the nation.

What is not remembered is that at almost the same time there was another case which also played an extremely consequential role in propelling the civil rights movement forward. That is the case of Jeremiah Reeves Jr., an Alabama high school student who was falsely convicted and executed for a series of rapes and assaults that occurred in Montgomery in 1951.

As often happens with history, some stories which should be widely known, disappear. Almost as much as the Till case, Reeves’ kangaroo court conviction and later execution enraged the black community and all who supported the civil rights movement. The case had a galvanizing effect on a generation of activists including Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and Martin Luther King Jr. but now it is not remembered.

Reeves’ story goes back to 1951 when he was sixteen. According to Jerome Ennels, author of Hold Back the Night, the definitive book about the case, Reeves was a model teenager. He had excellent grades and he was a talented drummer in the school band and in local black jazz bands. His family believed he had a very bright future. He was a stylish dresser and quite handsome. On the side, he worked along with his father in a delivery business.

When making deliveries, Reeves met some young white women who lured him into their homes on the pretense of needing something done inside. They then seduced him. Reeves was having consensual affairs with several white women. At that time, a black man having an affair with a white woman was extremely dangerous for both parties. Ennels writes:

“…a black man having an affair with several white women was nothing short of suicidal. In the case of Reeves, his sexual relationship with several white women made him a “menace” to Southern society and a threat to the “purity of white southern womanhood”. “

The fact of Reeves’ affairs became known by neighbors who noticed the frequency of his deliveries. A peeping tom neighbor reported Reeves to the police. Around the same time, Montgomery police were under pressure to find a “Phantom Attacker” who had committed six unsolved assaults in the last year. Although the police had no case against Reeves, they pursued him.

Any black man would do but they particularly wanted to convict someone who committed the ultimate transgression against southern mores. They picked up Reeves, booked him at the local jail, and immediately drove him to the Kilby maximum security prison.

Then the torture began. Prison officials sprayed Reeves with the insecticide DDT and then used a water hose to wash off the chemicals before giving him a septic bath. Without being convicted of any crime or even charged, Reeves received a maximum security prisoner classification. He was taken to Death Row and put in a Death Cell next to the prison’s bright yellow electric chair known as Yellow Mama.

For the next three days, police questioned, cursed and threatened Reeves. They allowed him no contact or calls with anyone. They did not let him sleep. After allowing him to doze for 20 minutes, they woke him and moved him into the death chamber, strapped him into Yellow Mama, and continued the interrogation.

The police told him he would be electrocuted unless he confessed. They also threatened they would get his family members. Reeves was repeatedly told the only way to save himself from the electric chair was to confess. On the third day of essentially non-stop interrogation, in a state of absolute exhaustion and terror, Reeves agreed to sign any statement and “say anything”. With the coerced confession, the state prosecuted Reeves for all six assaults.

However, when the assault victims were brought in for line-up identification they failed to identify Reeves as their assailant. The police read the women Reeves’ coerced statements and told them he was the perpetrator. Only one woman was willing to participate in the coached farce and she gave a completely different physical description of her attacker than the small 130 pound Reeves.

After a two day trial, an all-white jury deliberated for less than thirty minutes and convicted Reeves. He was sentenced to death. Reeves recanted his signed statements but the trial judge excluded the jury from hearing evidence of the police torture used to extract the confession.

The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. The NAACP and Thurgood Marshall took the case on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 1955, the Supreme Court reversed and vacated the conviction because an illegally obtained confession was used at trial and also because black people were systematically excluded from juries in Montgomery County, Alabama.

The case was re-tried before the same trial court judge who had heard the case the first time. In spite of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, again an all-white jury sat on the case. After hearing the evidence, the jury retired for deliberation and quickly asked the Court for a lunch break. When they returned from lunch, they took 35 minutes to find Reeves guilty and to sentence him to death. There was an absolute paucity of evidence against Reeves.

The Defense again appealed to the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court but this time the High Court voted not to accept the appeal. The Governor of Alabama then denied clemency. The state of Alabama electrocuted Jeremiah Reeves in Yellow Mama, the same chair he had previously been strapped into, on March 28, 1958. He was 22 years old. The state had to wait until he was old enough to execute.

Jeanne Theoharis, Rosa Parks’ biographer, said about the Reeves case:

“This was a legal lynching in parallel in many ways to the lynching of Emmett Till.”

The effect of the Reeves’ case on the black community was explosive. Both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin (who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white woman nine months before Rosa Parks) became fired-up activists, defying bus segregation rules that still were in effect across the South.

Reeves’ punishment was a warning message the Southern white power structure sent not to challenge white supremacy. His prosecution was not instigated by a handful of Southern white extremists. Leaders in the Alabama white community, especially judges and law enforcement, countenanced the torture and execution.

It is important to remember Jeremiah Reeves and the many unknown others like him. His story should be known. A culture of silence compounds the harm and it is a statement of devaluation. To this day, neither state nor federal officials acknowledged their inaction in the face of a legal lynching.

Among other things, Jeremiah Reeves was a poet. While in prison, he published this poem in the Christmas 1953 issue of the Birmingham World newspaper:

“I am tired of worrying and shedding tears,
Behind these lonely walls even hours seem
like years,
True love is one thing I’ve never known,
In this make believe world of my very own.”

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 16, 2023 at 12:33 am

    As he recounted in Stride Toward Freedom, the fight to save Reeves’ life was Martin Luther King’s first activist campaign after moving to Montgomery. See:

    • March 16, 2023 at 12:40 am

      Hi Arnie, I didn’t know the story until I saw the new documentary about Bryan Stevenson that is on HBO Max. It got mentioned there. Thanks for sending on the piece.

  2. Ronni Wise
    March 16, 2023 at 2:27 am

    Soul crushing 

    Sent from my iPhone


    div dir=”ltr”>


    blockquote type=”cite”>

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    March 16, 2023 at 3:13 pm

    My parents didn’t have a big library (besides Readers Digest Condensed Books!), but one of the books they had was One Hundred Years of Lynchings. Amazing how a little understanding of this history, and the invitation to learn it, can help shape an entire lifetime of thinking. This is why the right doesn’t want books like this on our shelves.

    • March 17, 2023 at 6:12 pm

      I am amazed your parents had a book like 100 years of lynching. That would not have been in my parent’s library.

      • jlewandohotmailcom
        March 17, 2023 at 11:36 pm

        Woke Californians ( ;

      • March 18, 2023 at 12:47 am


  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: