White Lies

Alabama journalists examine a civil rights activist’s unsolved murder

Gail Short

On the evening of Tuesday, March 9, 1965, three white Unitarian ministers finished their dinner at Walker’s Café in Selma, Alabama, then began walking down the semi-deserted street in the small Southern town. The streetlights were just coming on, bathing the scene in a warm yellow glow on this seemingly peaceful spring night.

Suddenly, as if appearing out of nowhere, four or five local men—all white—rushed toward the ministers, yelling insults and attacking them savagely. During the assault, one of the attackers clubbed Rev. James Reeb over the head, mortally wounding him. Two days later, on March 11, the husband and father of four died in a Birmingham hospital.

Unitarian minister James Reeb went to Selma in 1965 to march for voting rights.

Rev. Reeb, who was from Boston, and the other two ministers, Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller, had come to Selma in response to a national appeal from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to join other clergy, civil rights workers and local activists in the fight for voting rights.

Two days earlier, on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama State Troopers had brutally beaten peaceful voting rights demonstrators attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery. The trio of ministers were among many “outsiders” who had descended on the small town, outraged by “Bloody Sunday” and determined to continue the fight for voting rights. Many of the locals—including Reeb’s attackers—were just as determined to stop them.

…to this day, Reeb’s killer has never been brought to justice.

Three of Reeb’s attackers eventually went to trial. A jury, however, acquitted them, and to this day, Reeb’s killer has never been brought to justice. 

In a serial podcast called White Lies on NPR.org, journalists and Alabama natives Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace take listeners on a journey back to Selma to search for new leads in the 1965 case and to expose the lies and the cloak of silence that have buried this unsolved murder for nearly 60 years.   

Grace says he and Brantley got the idea to tell Reeb’s story from a Mississippi journalist while searching for a story to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “He said, ‘You know, this Jim Reeb story is super interesting,’” says Grace. “And, on top of that, he had an un-redacted FBI file, which is extraordinarily rare for a case like this.” 

Rev. Reeb and two other ministers were savagely beaten by Klan members in Selma, and Rev. Reeb died two days later.

In fact, in telling Reeb’s story, “White Lies” centers mostly on what happened in Selma after his murder. “I think that was a conscious choice we made, with this idea that the story we’re interested in is the story of the murder and how and why people went so many years without being held accountable, and what that says about us,” Grace says.

The podcast, which made its debut in May 2019, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Audio Recording in 2020. “We were enormously overwhelmed by it,” says Grace. “It wasn’t expected. There’s so much great work being made, but the show did well commercially and found a big audience insofar as these things go. NPR thought of it as a hit.”

“Apart from lots of emails we got and reviews that were left in iTunes, it was a little unclear to us, critically, what people thought of it,” he says.

For their podcast “White Lies,” Chip Brantley and Andrew Grace searched through old court documents and police records about the Reeb case, many of which are missing.

In the series, Brantley and Grace follow leads and search for old court documents and police records about the case, many of which are missing. “You follow these rumors as best you can,” says Brantley, “but it’s maddening whenever you hear about something that may exist, and it’s maddening when you can’t verify whether something exists. That leaves a lingering dissatisfaction that there’s something out there that you could have gotten, but you just can’t put your finger on it.”

Moreover, most Selma residents connected to the Reeb case—including the sons of the prosecutor and the defense attorney—declined to talk to Grace and Brantley. And some of the people who did talk would not let the two journalists record their conversations.

…they were able to persuade one woman to finally break her silence about the attackers.”

But Brantley and Grace managed to track down one of the last living jurors from the trial, and they were able to persuade one woman to finally break her silence about the attackers. 

Their investigation also knocks down a counter-narrative that the defense attorney and others in Selma floated during the trial: that Reed’s transport to the hospital was intentionally delayed because the civil rights movement needed a white martyr. 

The podcast, in fact, gives the historical account of what happened, including the fact that the first ambulance carrying Reeb on the night of March 9 sustained a flat tire. Reeb was then transferred to a second ambulance, which made the arduous, 80-mile trip to University Hospital in Birmingham.

Three of Reeb’s attackers eventually went to trial, but a jury acquitted them; to this day, Reeb’s killer has never been brought to justice.

The series also compares and contrasts the Reeb case to the murder of two other civil rights workers: Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Black man in Marion, Alabama, who died on February 26, 1965, after State Troopers beat and shot him during a February 18 demonstration, and Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was shot and killed by Klansmen on March 25, 1965, as she drove from Selma to Montgomery. 

Unlike Reeb’s attackers, some of those who killed Jackson and Liuzzo were eventually brought to justice. In Jackson’s case, a former State Trooper named James Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter at trial in 2010. And although the jury in a state court acquitted Liuzzo’s killers, three of the Klansmen were later convicted on federal charges.

The question the podcast series asks is: Will Reeb’s killer will ever be brought to justice?

The question the podcast series asks is: Will Reeb’s killer will ever be brought to justice? 

Toward the end of the series, listeners can hear Reeb’s final sermon in his own voice, recorded at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Washington D.C., in July 1964. In the speech, he warns his audience against telling themselves that the work was done and that life would be easier after the 1963 civil rights March on Washington D.C. and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To the contrary, Reeb called such thinking a “most dangerous kind of self-delusion” and warned of a coming backlash. Eight months later, he made his ill-fated trip to Selma to help continue the fight for Black civil rights. 

“Just thinking about the kinds of radical moves that Reeb made toward the end of his life really brought him to life for us,” Brantley says. 

We’re almost psychologically designed to not want to be honest with ourselves about difficult things.

Grace adds that while it is important to understand the past, we often resist truth. “We’re almost psychologically designed to not want to be honest with ourselves about difficult things,” says Grace. “It’s a common thread throughout human history.”

Learn more about the James Reeb story from his daughter, granddaughter, and a minister who was with him in Selma in 1965 in Bending the Arc: The Vote.

Walker’s Café in Selma in 1965. Rev. Reeb and his colleagues were attacked as they left the café on March 9, 1965.

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