On this dayMar 28, 1958

Alabama Executes Jeremiah Reeves After Police Torture Him Into False Confession

Alabama Department of Archives and History

On March 28, 1958, a 22-year-old Black man named Jeremiah Reeves was executed by the state of Alabama after police tortured him until he gave a false confession as a 16-year-old child.

In July 1951, Jeremiah, who was a 16-year-old high school student at the time, and Mabel Ann Crowder, a white woman, were discovered having sex in her home. Ms. 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 to having committed all of the rapes white women had reported that summer. Under this terrifying pressure, he falsely confessed to the charges in fear. Though he soon recanted and insisted he was innocent, Jeremiah was convicted and sentenced to death after a two-day trial during which the all-white jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes.

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 U.S. 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 15 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. Ms. Colvin 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 Ms. 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 remained on death row until 1958, when he reached what was considered the minimum age for execution.

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 Jeremiah Reeves’s wrongful conviction and execution, which had been carried out a little over a week before.

As mourners and activists gathered at the Capitol for the rally, 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 39 local white ministers released a statement decrying the activists’ “exaggerated emphasis on wrongs and grievances.”

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