Jeremiah Reeves: 16-Year-Old Death Sentenced Helped Drive Civil Rights Movement

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Jeremiah Reeves, 16, was arrested and wrongfully convicted of raping Mabel Ann Crowder on November 10, 1952.

Joyce A. Hanson, Reeves’ biographer, describes him as a high-school jazz band drummer who also worked as a grocery delivery boy.

Crowder claimed rape after Reeves was discovered having relations with her in her home. Most people in the black community suspected that the relationship was mutual and ongoing.

Neighbors were suspicious of what was going on in the Crowder home on the day he was arrested. Crowder allegedly screamed that she was being raped after they peered through the window and saw the couple undressing.

Reeves was arrested and taken to Kilby Prison, where he was questioned by police for hours. He was strapped into the electric chair and threatened with death if he did not confess to all of the rapes reported by white women that summer. Reeves confessed to all of the reported crimes because he was afraid of what would happen if he denied the charges.

The local NAACP chapter became involved in the Reeves case, attracting the attention of national leaders such as attorney Thurgood Marshall. On December 6, 1954, the United States Supreme Court overturned Jeremiah’s conviction, ruling that the judge at Jeremiah’s first trial should not have barred the jury from hearing evidence about how his confession was obtained.

Rosa Parks began corresponding with Reeves, which resulted in the publication of the teen’s poetry in the Birmingham World. His second trial was held in June 1955, and he was convicted and sentenced to death once more. All of his appeals were denied this time, and he was executed on March 28, 1958, at the age of 22. Reeves had spent most of his time in prison writing poetry, and he left his final poem to his mother.

Several white men in Alabama were also charged with rape during the time Reeves was imprisoned. Their accusers, however, were Black girls and women. These men were rarely arrested. The grand jury quickly released them on the rare occasion when they were arrested. None of these cases were ever tried in court.

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