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'White Lies' Podcast Exposes What Happened The Night James Reeb Died


Imagine a street corner in a small city. It's evening. The street lights have just come on. And three men have just finished dinner. Journalist Chip Brantley picks it up from there.


CHIP BRANTLEY, BYLINE: This is 1965. These men are strangers here - Northern men in a segregated Southern city; white men standing in front of a black restaurant; three men and a decision to make. There would have been no way for them to know that what will happen next will change everything, that it will lead to the murder of one of these three men and radically alter the lives of the other two.

MARTIN: The murder of James Reeb - a white Unitarian minister - would lead to outrage across the country. President Lyndon Johnson would invoke his death when he introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For more than 50 years, Reeb's murder would go unsolved. Two NPR journalists have changed that.

Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley have spent the last four years reporting on this case. The NPR podcast that follows their reporting is called White Lies, and it's out today. And Chip and Andy join me now in the studio to talk about it.

Thanks for coming in, guys.

BRANTLEY: Yeah, good morning.

ANDREW BECK GRACE, BYLINE: Yeah. Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: All right, so this man, Jim Reeb, was attacked on a street corner in Selma, Ala. It is 1965, and there is a whole lot happening around the country and around him at the time, right?

BRANTLEY: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, the Voting Rights Campaign is in full swing. There are lots of civil rights groups down in Selma and around Selma. And in February '65, a young, black civil rights worker named Jimmie Lee Jackson is shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper. And a couple of weeks later, they organize a protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery - Bloody Sunday.

MARTIN: Bloody Sunday, yeah.

BRANTLEY: Yeah. And so Jim Reeb, like millions of Americans, sees this footage of Bloody Sunday and is just outraged. And so he decides to come, like, clergy from all over the country. So Jim Reeb comes on Tuesday, March 9. He's attacked there in Selma. And he dies a couple of days later. And his death just provokes national outrage. The president invokes his death when he introduces the Voting Rights Act. Later that year, there's a trial for three men. They are acquitted by an all-white jury in December of 1965. And, really, after that, the story of what happened to Jim Reeb goes cold for, really, more than 50 years.

MARTIN: But of all the murders that happened during the civil rights movement, particularly the murders of black Americans in the South, why focus on this man - this particular white man?

GRACE: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, there are hundreds of these murders. I mean, I would imagine hundreds that we don't even know anything about, especially those who are African Americans. I think what was interesting to us about this particular case - and it wasn't really our intention to do this dive on it. But once we got into the story a little bit, we realized that Jimmie Lee Jackson's death was nothing to this country at the time that it happened. It was Jim Reeb's death that galvanized the nation. It was this idea that a white man was killed that meant so much, that Johnson invoked, that people around the country protested.

And the reception of the importance of the death of a white man over a black man said a lot about race at that time and also, we would come to find out later, a lot about how race operates in this country today. And it was kind of shocking to us that with all the attention that these - these really high-profile murders that happened around the Voting Rights Campaign, that Jimmie Lee Jackson's murder was solved, in a way, in 2005, when the state trooper who shot him was held to account. But in Jim Reeb's case, there's never been that accountability. And one of our characters Joanne Bland, who we've gotten to know over the years - an African American woman in Selma - we all talked about this a lot in the process of our reporting.


JOANNE BLAND: It would seem as though his would have been solved quicker. And all of it would have come to light because he was a white man. How - well, how did that come about that we could solve Jimmie's, but we can't solve Reeb's?

MARTIN: I mean, why wasn't it easy to solve? Why wasn't there also a lot of public pressure to get it done?

BRANTLEY: Yeah, so it was a busy street where Reeb was attacked - lots of witnesses, lots of people who saw it. But during the trial, the defense attorney basically presented two arguments. One - these guys weren't the guys who did it. They have alibis. And, two, that the movement itself - that Reeb's companions that night either let Reeb die or had a hand in killing him because they needed a white martyr.


GRACE: Yeah. And they bought it to such an extent that when we started showing up in Selma to report this story 50 years later, we heard versions of this story over and over and over again. Maybe all the details weren't exactly the same, but this vague idea that he hadn't really been killed by these guys was really prominent in our reporting. In fact, one of the people we talked to is a man named Billy Boozer (ph).


BILLY BOOZER: I'll tell you. They killed a man on the way to Birmingham. I just - I will - I always will believe it.

MARTIN: OK, so through these seven episodes, you end up coming to startling revelations about this case. But there's another question that we have to ask here. You answered earlier about why this particular white man was worth this story. Why are you two, also white men - why are you the ones to tell it?

BRANTLEY: Yeah, that's a great question. Andy and I both grew up in Alabama. And one of the remarkable things for us when we first started reporting this story is that this story about the murder of Jim Reeb, which was a huge deal at the time, was something we'd never heard about. And what we found was that this community was really just protecting its own. And it felt really familiar to us - that kind of silence, that kind of lie to sort of protect something that was precious to you. And frankly, you know, we had the luxury of not talking about race growing up. We grew up in a place whose default strategy when it came to talking about race was silence. And we just felt like once we got into the story, we had an obligation to do it.

GRACE: To Chip's point, I think we internalized that ability to not have to talk about race when we were younger. And I think as we grew older and started thinking about what it means to be an American, especially a white American, it seemed very important to us to wrestle with these injustices of the past. We often think of black history and the civil rights movement as a black story, so now it's about and for black people. But there is another force in that story, and it's white people. So we, especially as white Southerners, I think, have a responsibility to try to understand these stories and unpack them.

MARTIN: So you guys end up setting the record straight on what happened the night that Jim Reeb was attacked. Is that truth enough? I mean, what difference does that revelation make?

GRACE: Yeah. I mean, we've thought a lot about the work of other journalists, many of them white Southerners as well, who have done this same kind of work over the years. We actually talked to a man named John Fleming, who's a reporter who was instrumental - actually probably the reporter who got the Jimmie Lee Jackson case reopened in 2005 - who talks a lot about the purpose of this kind of work.


JOHN FLEMING: Having that outing of all the wrongs that were done is just - is usually important as a starting point for rebuilding your society. And we've never really had that before. And it's a collective cleansing that we still need.

GRACE: I mean, the truth is for some people, the truth will never be enough. But this country has never had a proper truth and reconciliation moment about race. And we've heard someone - very famous thinker on race, Bryan Stevenson, say this idea, which - truth and reconciliation are sequential. So to have reconciliation, we have to first have the truth.

MARTIN: Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley are the hosts of NPR's new podcast. It is called White Lies. It is out today.

Thank you so much for talking with us.

BRANTLEY: You're welcome. Thanks for having us.

GRACE: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.