“This is the story of a murder at the center of the Civil Rights Movement and the lies that kept it from being solved. It’s an event that rippled far beyond the time and place where it happened, sparking national outrage and galvanizing support for one of the most significant laws of the 20th Century.”
These words are plastered atop the website for National Public Radio’s (NPR) latest podcast, which explores the 1965 killing of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who traveled to Selma, Alabama, after Bloody Sunday and was viciously beaten by white assailants on Washington Street.
The podcast, entitled “White Lies,” is the brainchild of two journalism professors from the University of Alabama, Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley, who spent years traveling to Selma to uncover the untold story of Reeb’s murder.
“When we were learning about this period in school, we got a very bland version of the Civil Rights struggle,” said Brantley, whose father attended camp at Paul Grist State Park as a child. “We were interested in the fact that it was something we had never really heard about.”
Brantley recalled that the case was a big deal when it happened, but it seemed to be an even bigger deal after it disappeared from people’s view and memory.
Grace said he became interested in the case after doing a small piece for the New York Times on one of the ministers who accompanied Reeb during his time in Selma.
“The more time we spent down there, the more we read about it, the more curious we were about what really happened,” Grace said.
“There’s just some very fundamental journalistic questions that we can’t help but try to answer.”Andrew Beck Grace, UA documentary film professor, Moon Winx Films documentary film maker, NPR’s “White Lies”
The podcast weaves between past and present, using audio recorded shortly after Reeb’s murder, as well as the statements of people still living in Selma who were around when the killing took place.
In the podcast, listeners can travel alongside Brantley and Grace as they plow through mountains of documents at the Dallas County Courthouse or in a storage shed behind a local car dealership, filled to the roof with documents dating back to the Civil War.
“That was amazing how we ended up there,” Brantley said of the unlikely archive behind the rental car dealership. “We wanted to make sure we looked everywhere.”
While Grace and Brantley tell the tale of the 1965 murder, for which no one was ever convicted, the reporting duo also exposes the long-standing preconceptions and misconceptions, the apprehensions and resistances, that still stand between history and the truth.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Grace said of interviewing Selma residents with knowledge of the deadly encounter that took place only two days after Bloody Sunday.
“I think that as a native Alabamian, I understand that we live in a place where other people from outside of this place look down on our history. I think that breeds a reluctance to talk about the past.”Andrew Beck Grace
Grace said he and Brantley faced hostility from locals not interested in talking about the past, as well as those who saw no benefit in rehashing the past in the interest of the future.
“Selma has a trauma about the past that it doesn’t want to address,” Grace said. “I do think people are having an easier time connecting the trauma of the past to the problems we’re having today, but that’s a long bridge.”
“In a place like Selma, which is small and everybody knows everybody, it’s seen better days and people are trying to grapple with that, I think we heard from a lot of people, like, ‘what is this story going to do to help Selma now?’” Brantley said. “It’s hard to give an honest answer that doesn’t sound like self-promotion.”
While Grace and Brantley have done exhaustive research on the trial of those accused of attacking Reeb and the two other ministers who accompanied him that night on Washington Street, they also go to great lengths to undermine the counter-narrative proposed by Sol Tepper, who owned a department store in Selma at the time and was a devout segregationist, that movement leaders had Reeb killed in order to give the movement a “white martyr.”
“[These questions] are fundamentally important,” Brantley said. “Time is not going to make those go away. We have to really confront them.”Chip Brantley, UA journalism professor and producer of NPR’s “White Lies”
Despite the friction the two journalists had between the locals who were apprehensive about dredging up the past, Grace and Brantley enjoyed their time in Selma and the people they met over their more than three years researching Reeb’s murder.
“Selma is such a complicated and beautiful and strange place,” Grace said. “It’s just a different kind of place. There are such interesting people there that we’ve gotten to know over the years.”
Grace called the people of Selma “some of the richest characters” he’s encountered as a journalist and praised the city’s picturesque downtown and the careening river just beyond its sight.
“There are so many things about it that are so fascinating,” Grace said.
For his part, Brantley appreciated how the experience of researching the 1965 incident and following the bread crumbs that led to the doorsteps of citizens still living in Selma provided him with the opportunity to confront his own history.
“[I appreciated] the way in which the story forced us to grapple with our own histories,” Brantley said, recalling how his father tried to reckon with his past ideas and opinions. “It’s been enriching to do some work that’s forced us to do that.”
The fourth episode of the seven-part series has aired and, according to Grace and Brantley, more revelations of the March 9, 1965 slaying of Reeb – in which a gang of white men assaulted him and two other ministers as they walked past the Silver Moon Café on Washington Street, did ultimately lead to Reeb’s death in a Birmingham hospital and uniting much of the country behind the Voting Rights Act, including President Lyndon B. Johnson who invoked Reeb’s name in calling for the legislation – are on the horizon.
Adam Powell is a reporter for the Selma Times Journal and is president of the new SPJ Alabama. For more information about the new SPJ Alabama chapter contact Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Powell’s article is a reprint from the Selma Times-Journal published on June 4, 2019 via permission from the Selma Times-Journal.
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