On this dayApr 06, 1958

Arrest and Execution of Jeremiah Reeves Sparks Rally, Activism in Montgomery, Alabama

Image | Alabama Department of Archives and History

On April 6, 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at an Easter rally in Montgomery, Alabama. Standing on the marked spot on the Capitol steps where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861, Dr. King decried the wrongful conviction of a local black teenager who had been executed just weeks before.

In July 1951, a 16-year-old high school student named Jeremiah Reeves and a white woman named Mabel Ann Crowder were discovered having sex in her home. Crowder claimed she had been raped by Jeremiah and he was immediately arrested and taken to Kilby Prison for “questioning.” Police strapped the frightened boy into the electric chair and told him that he would be electrocuted unless he admitted committing all of the rapes of white women reported that summer. He soon confessed to the charges against him and was later convicted.

The local black community believed -- and in some cases, knew -- that Jeremiah Reeves and Mabel Crowder had been involved in an ongoing, consensual affair. Concerned about the injustice of the young man's conviction, the Montgomery NAACP became involved and helped attract the attention of national lawyer Thurgood Marshall. These advocates were able to win reversal of Jeremiah’s conviction on December 6, 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge had been wrong to prevent the jury from hearing evidence of the torture police used to get his confession.

Jeremiah’s case also became a flashpoint for Montgomery’s nascent civil rights movement. Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at fifteen for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a Birmingham bus in March 1955, was inspired to take that protest action as a show of support for Jeremiah, her friend and schoolmate. Claudette later became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that led the Supreme Court to order buses desegregated in 1956. Rosa Parks exchanged letters with Jeremiah while he was jailed and helped him to get his poetry published in the Birmingham World; she went on to repeat Colvin’s protest in December 1955, facing arrest for resisting bus segregation and sparking the Montgomery bus boycott.

At a second trial, in June 1955, Jeremiah was again convicted and sentenced to death. This time, all appeals were denied. Jeremiah had spent much of his time in prison writing poetry, and he willed his final poem to his mother. He was executed on March 28, 1958, at age 22.

When mourners and protesters gathered at the Alabama State Capitol for the April 6th rally just over a week after Jeremiah Reeves's execution, they were confronted by Ku Klux Klansmen determined to disrupt the peaceful demonstration. Undeterred, Dr. King forcefully denounced the unequal treatment of white and black defendants and victims in the courts. “Truth may be crucified and justice buried," he declared, "but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.”

Afterward, a group of thirty-nine local white ministers released a statement decrying the protesters’ “exaggerated emphasis on wrongs and grievances.”

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