More than 50 years after Unitarian Reverend James Reeb was murdered during the voting rights movement in Selma, two native Alabamians return to that city to expose the lies that kept his murder from being solved, and uncover a story about guilt, memory, and justice that says as much about America today as it does about the past.
In a place where a legacy of impunity and silence conspires against them, Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley scour Selma for living witnesses, guided by an unredacted copy of an old FBI file. They meet people who know the truth about the murder but have lied for decades — until now.
Ahead of White Lies' first episode today, March 14, we spoke with Chip and Andy about what it was like to report on a crime many decades old, what their discovery meant to them as white southerners, and what they hope listeners take away from their reporting.
How did you learn about this case, and what sparked your interest in it?
The James Reeb murder is a well-known Civil Rights-era cold case, and we were initially interested in it simply because it was unsolved. Reeb was killed in March 1965, and in December of that year, three men were tried and acquitted for his murder by an all-white, all-male jury. Given the way the justice system worked, it's not at all surprising that no one was convicted for Reeb's murder. But what was shocking once we started looking into it was the defense's argument that civil rights activists had themselves conspired to kill Reeb because they needed a white martyr. And that lie still exists today. We heard the conspiracy theory on our first reporting trip to Selma, and we've heard versions of it countless times since.
What significance does the unsolved murder of the Rev. Jim Reeb — a white man — have for our current conversations about race relations and civil rights?
When Reeb died, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his eulogy at a memorial service in Selma. In it, he said that it's important to focus not just on who killed Reeb, but also what allowed it - the system, the philosophy, the way of life that produced the murder. We've absorbed this formulation into our reporting: It's not just the who, but the what. And in doing so we've seen the many ways in which the cover-up of Reeb's murder extends all the way from 1965 to today.
What kind of effect has this investigation had on the people of Selma? Do you think that effect has evolved since 1965?
After three men were acquitted for Reeb's murder, the city of Selma was, in many ways, allowed to forget what happened and move on without reckoning with the murder. Of course, the legacy of any injustice has a long shadow, and Selma still seems to be trying to figure out how to deal with its complicated history. We hope in some small way this story and our efforts to finally tell the definitive version of what happened to Jim Reeb can contribute to white Selma's process of coming to terms with the past.
Have your perspectives about yourselves or your communities changed at all since you began reporting on this story?
Yes, definitely. We're both from Alabama and we have a love/hate relationship with this place. We're always grappling with those opposing feelings — loving the place, its people and its textures, but feeling paralyzed by its history and what to do about it. White southerners are a defensive people, and we often get most defensive about how we talk about the past - about any interrogation of what we choose to remember and what we'd rather forget. Doing this story in Selma allowed us to really dive in to that reality and ask ourselves hard questions about the broader implication of being a white American.
What was the most challenging part of asking people to remember an event that happened 50 years ago?
For many people, the story of Reeb's murder is an uncomfortable one — one they'd rather put out of mind. Leave it alone. It's dead and gone. We heard that again and again. And this silence is part of why the murder remained unsolved for so long. Not to mention that with the passage of time, many of the principle characters in this story have died. And so the story we tell isn't just an excavation of the past, it's a reflection on how memory works.
Did you have any misconceptions about the story beforehand that were proved wrong?
We thought that a civil rights cold case story might follow a conventional narrative arc. There would be a culprit in the end that we could pin this horrible crime on and then we could dust off our hands and be done with it. But we soon realized that the culpability for Reeb's murder extends far beyond the men who attacked him. That realization has provoked us to think critically about how, collectively, white people have done a very poor job of being honest about the sins of the past. The story of Reeb's murder offers us a way to begin to process a much larger injury that has never been properly addressed.
What's one thing you hope listeners take away from the podcast?
It's our hope that listeners will find the show engaging and thought-provoking, but we also aim to tell a great story that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats. As a serialized narrative, we've taken full advantage of the pleasures of this kind of storytelling, and we hope people enjoy listening and are excited to tune in every week.
There are a lot of characters in our story that it might be easy to find detestable. But we hope a listener will see a broader story at work, a story about a wider injustice and a wider consequence of this country's inability to be honest with ourselves about the past.