In 1965, activist Rev. James Reeb traveled from Boston, Mass. to Selma, Ala. to participate in the civil rights movement. He was murdered — dying of head injuries in the hospital two days after being attacked. Three men were tried and acquitted, but no one was ever held accountable.
Fifty years later, Alabama journalists Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley returned to where it happened to expose the lies keeping the murder from being solved. However, what started as a mission to solve a cold civil rights case turned into a story about guilt and memory that says as much about the state of our country today as it does about the past.
"We started to look into it as not something we knew a lot about, even though we both grew up [in Alabama]. And as soon as we started reporting in Selma, we were immediately drawn to the story for reasons we explore in the podcast," explains Brantley.
Their podcast, White Lies, is a seven-part special project from NPR's investigations team. White Lies seeks to break down the myths and mistruths surrounding the unsolved murder of Reeb. There is also now a broadcast version of the podcast that you can hear Fridays through Nov. 18 on WUWM.
"The window on all these old civil rights cold cases is closing — or maybe has closed — in terms of getting the truth from people who were participants or witnessed these things," Brantley notes. "And so we really felt the urge to get the people that we knew had some access to the story to tell us the truth."
Beck Grace says there's still a big reluctance on the part of many white southerners to talk about these past events and continuing issues that surround civil rights and race relations in the country. "We saw I think much deeper themes about the South and about our own collective memory in this one particular story," he says.
While an investigative series needs to have a standard structure to explain who committed the murder and how the injustice of the trial resulted in an aquittal, Beck Grace says it was also important to explore how the case of Reeb manifests itself in Selma, Ala.
"We consciously wanted to evoke those structures that are familiar to people in terms of how the story works, but we wanted to also get away from the broader implications of that kind of story, which is that there's one good person and one bad person in this story," he explains.
"The blame for this kind of injustice, it extends to communities which allow it to happen and perpetrate the lies that cover up the truth. We can all, even contemporarily, relate to what that feels like," Beck Grace adds.
Brantley says that while White Lies is about getting to the bottom of who killed Reeb, they also wanted to look at the broader question of what killed him: "What underlying conditions contributed to his being there in the first place, in his death, and then the cover up of the crime that resulted in his death?"