A mural stretching 75 feet along a downtown building will tell stories of the Rev. James Reeb’s life of service to others and role in the civil rights movement in his hometown. The Unitarian Universalist minister from Casper answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, and was murdered there in 1965 by white supremacists. His death helped spur the Voting Rights Act.
The Table, an alternative church community in Casper, is leading the Reeb Memorial Mural effort with the Casper Mural Project team, a group of community members working toward putting more public art downtown. The Unitarian Universalist Community of Casper started a fundraiser open through July 27 seeking $10,000 toward the mural and related projects, including an interactive website, a film and public events.
The mural’s official reveal is slated for 5 p.m. Aug. 28 followed by a reception at The Lyric featuring a panel discussion with national and local guests to discuss the significance of the story, The Table Pastor Libby Tedder Hugus said.
“We desire for this mural to spark compassion and empathy in Casper neighbors,” Tedder Hugus said. “And the deeper context behind that is that the James Reeb story is so undertold and underknown in Casper, and it deserves to be heard. It deserves to inspire people to know that somebody who considered Casper his hometown went on to live a legacy of loving his neighbors and working for the rights of his American neighbors, which included his Wyoming neighbors.”
Connection to Casper
Reeb’s granddaughter Leah Reeb Varela of Casper is part of the mural committee. While his death often overshadows his story, she hopes to share inspiration from the way he lived. He immersed his life in efforts including housing integration, desegregating buses and advocacy for underprivileged youth, she said.
She’s thankful to be part of the project to help educate the community about his story as it ties to Wyoming, “and in a way that adds to the vibrancy of our downtown through an artistic approach,” she said.
“You can show compassion and humanity to your fellow humans and also not be afraid to use your voice if you feel like something just isn’t right — I think that that’s probably the most important thing that I always think about in thinking about him,” she said, “that I don’t have to have some large platform or be some big politician or be someone that has a lot of notoriety to lend my voice to what I think is right and stand up for people that just need somebody.”
Reeb attended Natrona County High School and Casper College and became a Presbyterian minister in Casper. He served in the Army and studied at Princeton. He traveled from Boston to Selma as King called for clergy across faiths and races to join voting rights demonstrators in a second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge after “Bloody Sunday.” Reeb was depicted in the 2014 film “Selma.”
Reeb had left a life as assistant minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in the Washington suburbs and moved his family to Boston. He took a pay cut to join a Quaker organization that helped minorities find low-income housing and children find education.
“He never lived outside of where he was working, which I always thought was interesting,” Reeb Varela said. “He moved his family to the ghetto in Roxbury (Boston) because if he was going to try to make a difference, he wanted to ensure that people believed that he was there to do that, and so he put himself in the same situations as best he could.”
His widow, Marie, and many family members live in Casper.
“And so for us and for me in particular I guess it’s important for me that his story lives on through — nationally, his efforts in being a civil rights advocate and ultimately, unfortunately, a martyr of the movement,” Reeb Varela said. “But in addition to that, him being tied to the Casper community and keeping his story alive and letting it live on through today, about living and being compassionate toward your neighbors and your community, I think tells an important story.”
The family has happened upon and heard about murals and other art projects about Reeb around the country. The upcoming piece in Casper is one they’ve been able to provide some insight for, which is unique, Reeb Varela said.
Casper artist Tony Elmore has been working with the Reeb family to design the mural he’ll soon begin painting. His research has included a lot of reading, and he read and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy of Reeb, he said. He’s listened to NPR’s “White Lies” podcast about its investigation into Reeb’s murder 50 years later, which recently led to identification of a fourth attacker.
Elmore revealed a sketch for the mural that shows Reeb among other civil rights activists at one end of the image. Lines like a wake of his life flow across most of the design with images representing his life — like his beginnings in Casper and his life’s work helping others leading up to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
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“Because so much of his story is defined by this moment,” Elmore said, “but there is so much that led up to it.”
Reeb Varela said her family acknowledges Reeb was one of many people who dedicated and lost their lives fighting for civil rights. Some of them will also be included in the mural.
“The greater reason for his involvement was far more important than he himself getting any sort of recognition, which I think is important,” she said.
The mural in the town her grandfather always considered his home helps tell a story people can connect with today, she said.
“And so for him to be able to stand out when the majority was against what he was standing for, I think is something of courage and humanity and a story that’s worth hearing,” Reeb Verala said. “And I think, too, that for me, I always think it kind of brings a story to life about how the everyday person could connect with him. He was just an everyday man. He had a wife and a family, and he just took a risk in standing up for a group of individuals that didn’t have a lot of people that were standing for them in a certain time frame. And I think it parallels things that we go through today and that anyone in their everyday life can just lend themselves to a greater cause.”
Legacy of compassion and empathy
Reeb is revered among Unitarian Universalists around the world, said Laura Gossman, chair of the Unitarian Universalist Community of Casper’s committee to raise funds for the mural.
“Well, when we heard about it, we couldn’t not get involved,” Gossman said. “There was just no way that we could sit on the sidelines. I mean, this is a legacy that exemplifies what Unitarian Universalism across the country is committed to — his life of service, his commitment to civil rights and activism.”
The all-or-nothing campaign on the Unitarian Universalist project fundraising site aims to raise $10,000 of the $30,000 estimated cost of the mural, film, website and public events. Any money it raises above the $10,000 will go to the James J. Reeb Memorial Scholarship Fund at Casper College, according to the fundraiser website.
The Reeb mural has received grants from Wyoming Humanities Council, the Wyoming Arts Council and the city of Casper, which along with the fundraiser should cover the budget, Tedder Hugus said.
The fundraiser helps spread the word about the mural and Reeb’s story among Unitarian Universalists across the country, Gossman said. Public art attracts attention and can spark interest, and the mural will be in a very visible spot, she said.
“This isn’t just a Unitarian Universalist story, and it isn’t just really a civil rights story,” Gossman said. “It’s a story that involves Casper, and Casper’s never told this story before in this way.”
Public art creates an accessible way to tell stories and a source of pride for communities, Tedder Hugus said. Mural zones in towns around the region become tourist attractions, she said.
“Public art becomes inspirational because it’s owned by all of us,” Tedder Hugus said. “It’s accessible, and it reflects back to us our values as a community and inspires us onto greater versions of that.”
Elmore will paint the mural on the east wall of a recently remodeled building at 225 S. David St., visible from Center Street downtown. The Table is involved with the Casper Mural Project effort to paint more murals around it in a horseshoe-shaped section of walls across the street from David Street Station, she said.
“His whole life’s legacy was compassion and empathy,” Tedder Hugus said. “And so the reason why we want to start with his story is to inspire people to live into their Wyoming identity as the Equality State and to honor the legacy of a man whose story is so undertold here.”