NPR White Lies Crime Podcast Episode 1 Recounts Civil Rights Era Unsolved Murder In 1965, the Rev. James Reeb was murdered in Selma, Ala. No one was ever held to account. We return to the town where it happened, searching for new leads in an old story.
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The Murder Of The Rev. James Reeb

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The Murder Of The Rev. James Reeb

The Murder Of The Rev. James Reeb

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ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST:

Three men eat dinner in a crowded restaurant in an unfamiliar city. When they're done eating, two of them take turns using the pay phone to make long-distance phone calls to their families. One walks outside to smoke a cigar. Years later, he'd recall how quiet it was, the sound of the street lamps coming on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And when the phone calls are made, they all stand in front of the restaurant in the approaching darkness. They don't know this place. They don't know this street. They've got a meeting to get back to. What's the best way back to where they've come from? Should they turn left or right?

CHIP BRANTLEY, HOST:

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've 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, that this moment will ripple down through the generations in ways seen and unseen, affecting the children and the grandchildren of all the men who converged on the street that night.

GRACE: And it ripples far past those families in this town. News of the murder will spread, leading to outrage and protests around the nation. Even the president will get involved, invoking the murder in a nationally televised speech to announce one of the most significant bills of the 20th century.

BRANTLEY: But for everything that would happen after the decision to turn left or right, the murder has remained unsolved. No one has ever been held to account.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The man was hit last night over his head because a bad situation has developed and created a lot of hate in the white community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He had been clubbed by white men who resented his coming to Selma to join Negro civil rights demonstrations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I remember the sound of that club hitting Jim's head.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't remember nothing. And I don't want to remember nothing. Hell, when you get bad stuff, you leave it alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I didn't discuss it with nobody, honey. After it happened, I kept my mouth shut.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This minister's going to die, isn't he? Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: A lot of things they knew back in those days could come back to haunt them. Statute of limitations on murder never runs out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Like a tree with branches, if you cut off one branch, don't mean the damn tree going to die. It's just going to grow another branch. We need to find the root of all this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES, a show in which we search for the root of all this. I'm Andrew Beck Grace.

BRANTLEY: And I'm Chip Brantley. The story we're going to tell you is about what happened on the street that night and what came after, about how a lie took root, working steadily over the years to overshadow the truth.

GRACE: And it's about what happened when we came back to the same city some 50 years later to call a lie a lie.

BRANTLEY: To untangle the history from the mythology and finally solve this murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Our story takes place in Selma, Ala., a city built on a bluff above the Alabama River. Selma's an old city. It was founded in 1820 and played an important role in the Civil War. But Selma today is best known for what happened during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

BRANTLEY: And those black-and-white images from the civil rights movement - that's pretty much how we thought about Selma, too, and Andy and I are both from Alabama. Our ancestors were here before Alabama was a state, and our family trees are populated by slave owners, Confederates, segregationists. But those people in those times - to us, they felt far away from the Alabama we grew up in, which was a generation removed from the 1960s.

And when we were growing up in the suburbs, our Alabama - that is to say white Alabama - was wrestling with a story of the civil rights era, trying to figure out how to talk about it. And the strategy, for the most part, was not to talk about it because we didn't have to talk about it. What's past is past, water under the bridge.

GRACE: But come on. White Southerners are not a people habitually opposed to talking about the past. In fact, the opposite is true. Confederate Memorial Day, commemorating soldiers killed in a war that ended over 150 years ago, is still a state holiday here. And state government shuts down in remembrance. Nearly every county seat in Alabama has an enormous Confederate monument right in the courthouse square. And the state legislature passed a law in 2017 that protected those monuments from being removed.

So this hesitancy among white folks to talk about what happened here in the 1960s - it's not a simple resistance to the past. It's a resistance to a certain kind of story about the past.

BRANTLEY: Among the stories many white Alabamians don't like to talk about is what happened in Selma on Sunday, March 7, 1965, a spectacle of public violence that would become synonymous with the city. And the man who would be murdered here - it was images of this violence that brought him to Selma in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSY STREET)

GRACE: This is some footage from that Sunday. It begins with a wide shot of a group of black people milling about in front of a church. Some of them have bags on their shoulders, small suitcases. They're rolling up sleeping bags. Soon, the people form a long line down the sidewalk. There's a cut to a medium shot of two men, John Lewis and Hosea Williams, standing before a reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEWIS: We're marching today to dramatize to the nation, dramatize to the world the hundreds and thousands of Negro citizens of Alabama that are denied the right to vote. We intend to march to Montgomery to present said grievance to Governor George C. Wallace.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mr. Williams, what are you going to do if you get stopped?

HOSEA WILLIAMS: What are we going to do if we get stopped? Well, we hope we won't get stopped. But if we get stopped, we're going to stand there and try to negotiate and talk them into letting us go ahead to Montgomery.

GRACE: Then a shot of Lewis and Williams leading a long line of marchers, walking two by two down a sidewalk and through the city. Then there's a wider shot, as the marchers cross a steel trellised bridge over a river. And you can see written right there on the arch, Edmund Pettus Bridge.

As they reach the top, we see what the marchers see at the other end of the bridge, a line of white state troopers in dark uniforms. They're wearing helmets. They hold billy clubs. They hitch up their belts. We see the marchers getting closer before a cut to a wide shot of some police officers on horses. And then a tighter shot of the troopers. Many of them have put on gas masks.

And if you've seen anything from this day, this is the bit you've probably seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STATE TROOPER: It'll be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. And I'm saying that this is an unlawful assembly. You are to disperse. You're ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

BRANTLEY: The marchers have come to a stop at the foot of the bridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STATE TROOPER: Is that clear to you? I've got nothing further to say to you.

BRANTLEY: The two men in front have their hands still stuck deep in their pockets. The hems of their coats flap in the wind, but they don't move. They don't say anything back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STATE TROOPER: Troopers here, advance toward the group. See that they turn around and disperse.

BRANTLEY: And then the line of state troopers begins to advance, slowly at first, holding their billy clubs in front of them. And as they reach the marchers, the troopers speed up, start shoving and then swinging their clubs. You can see marchers forced to the ground, others running back up the bridge, and then clouds of smoke - tear gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BRANTLEY: It happens very quickly. And you see the troopers, blocked by a line of police cars, obscured by a thick haze, beating people on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And this is the part that's most memorable, most disturbing. The troopers are forcing the cameramen to stay back, so there's a telephoto shot zoomed in as far as it'll go. The image gets pretty grainy, but what you see through the fog of the tear gas are clubs coming up in the air and swinging down over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOANNE BLAND: We're going to Lannie's. Y'all ever ate at Lannie's?

GRACE: Yeah.

BRANTLEY: I haven't been to this one.

BLAND: OK. Well, this the real one. This the real one. This the 'hood one.

BRANTLEY: It's a mild winter day, and we're driving through Selma with a woman we've come to know in recent years. Her name is Joanne Bland.

Where did you grow up?

BLAND: George Washington Carver Homes - where else? - in the projects...

BRANTLEY: But...

BLAND: ...Across from the church.

BRANTLEY: Right across from the church, OK.

BLAND: Grew up in the church.

GRACE: In that church?

BLAND: In Brown.

BRANTLEY: The church Joanne's talking about is Brown Chapel AME. Today, it's the most famous building in Selma because it was the nerve center for the civil rights movement here. It's actually in that 1965 footage. It's the place where all the marchers gathered before setting out to cross the bridge.

In between the church and the bridge, Joanne, who gives civil rights tours for out-of-towners, points out a five-story building with windows on the upper floors broken or boarded up.

BLAND: See that building on the left on the corner?

BRANTLEY: Right here?

BLAND: Tepper's. Tepper's used to be a department store. And I remember going in there, and we had to go in the basement. We couldn't go in that door. They had a basement for the African Americans.

And years and years later, one of our councilwomen and I were on a radio show together, and it was around Christmas. And she said, Joanne, you remember the Christmas wonderland? And I was like, no, I don't. And she said, yeah, on the top floor at Tepper's every year. It was the best time of the year because we would all go upstairs, and there would be this wonderful winter wonderland. And Santa Claus would be there. We waited all year for that.

I had to remind her I was African American - OK? - that, no, we never saw the winter wonderland. That was only for white kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: One of the places Joanne takes groups is to the Live Oak Cemetery on the west side of town. It’s a total Southern cliche, with the sunken tombstones and the massive live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. At one end, there are dozens and dozens of tiny Confederate flags marking the graves of Confederate soldiers. This part of the cemetery is called Confederate Memorial Circle, and it includes a huge monument to the soldiers of Dallas County who fought in the Civil War. On one side, it reads, there's grandeur in graves; there is glory in gloom.

This memorial - it's typical for the South. And if you squint just right, which so many white Southerners have done for so long, it makes a certain kind of sense why it's here. Something like 30,000 Alabamians died fighting in the Civil War. And this monument, erected just 13 years after the end of the war, was part of the initial wave of monuments in the South and the North that tried to make some kind of sense out of the war, out of all the violence and all the death.

GRACE: But then, on the other side of the circle, there's a different Confederate monument. And no matter how hard you squint, there's only one way to read this one. It's a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest. A thumbnail sketch of Forrest would hit the highlights. Born poor, he makes a fortune as a slave trader, becomes a legendary Confederate general accused of ordering the slaughter of surrendering African American soldiers at Fort Pillow. And after the South's defeat, he becomes one of the earliest leaders of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.

And when did they dedicate the Forrest monument?

BLAND: The year 2000, when we elected our first African American mayor.

GRACE: The same year?

BLAND: Same year. I mean, within weeks of him taking office, so.

GRACE: I mean, I'm sorry to ask an obvious question, but is it just completely related?

BLAND: What?

GRACE: That they did that at the same time that they elected the - I mean, is it basically just the response?

BLAND: (Laughter) Now, you know you've already answered that question in your mind. But (laughter) look; when I look at Nathan's head up there, his mouth started moving. It says, you may have a Negro mayor, but we are still here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAND: Of course. Look at the timing. Why would you put the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in a town where it had just elected an African American man if you are not trying to send a message?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Joanne says that Forrest was the founder of the Klan, which is what a lot of people believe. But to get technical about it, he was not the founder. Instead, he became the first grand wizard of the Klan. So to get technical about it, in the year 2000, white Selmians erected a monument to a man who guided the Ku Klux Klan through its first national campaign of racial violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Spending time in Selma is like this - a nearly constant technical and often bitter relitigation of the minutiae of the past. Here in Selma, there are two distinct realms of the past - the Civil War and the civil rights movement. In fact, the city slogan was, from Civil War to civil rights.

In recent years, they've added, and beyond. But to be honest, in Selma, it's hard to get beyond these two histories. They operate like two magnets with the same polarity. No matter how hard you might force them together, they will always repel each other. They will never find a way to meet.

BRANTLEY: Selma was an important city for the Confederacy. The largest munitions factory outside of Richmond, it was a late stronghold that fell toward the end of the war. And in the story of its fall, there was always nostalgia and bravery. Like the monument said, there is grandeur in graves.

But all that has been eclipsed by what happened on the bridge on March 7, 1965, the event that would soon be called Bloody Sunday after the footage of the police beating protesters got beamed around the world. And now that's what most of the people who come here are looking for.

And that's why so many people seek out Joanne. She was only 11 in 1965, but she was there on the bridge that day with her older sister. She was just over the crest of the bridge, in about the middle of the line of marchers, when the state troopers began beating those in front and setting off tear gas.

BLAND: Before we could turn to run, it was too late. They came in from both sides - the front and the back. And they were just beating people. What I remember the most are the screams. People were just screaming, and I probably was, too - screaming and screaming. People lay everywhere, bleeding, not moving. I thought they were dead.

Tear gas burns your eyes so you're blind, and then you can't breathe. You panic. Oftentimes, you run right back to the same people. And it seemed like it lasted forever. If you could outrun the men on foot, you couldn't outrun the ones on horses. They were running the horses into the crowd. People were being trampled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAND: The last thing I remember, though, on that bridge that day is seeing this horse and this lady. And I don't know what happened. Did he hit her and she fell? Did the horse just run over her? I do know I can still hear the sound her head made when it hit that pavement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The cameramen on the bridge rushed to develop their footage and send it on to their producers in New York. Within hours, the violence in Selma is the lead story on every network.

One of the people watching the news that night is a man named James Reeb, whom everyone calls Jim. He's a white Unitarian minister. He's living in Boston. He's working on low-income housing issues. And he's watching the footage that night with his wife, Marie. They're both outraged. And Jim feels sick, feels like he has to do something.

BRANTLEY: The next day, Martin Luther King sends telegrams to major denominations throughout the country, calling on clergy of conscience to descend on Selma and lend their support to the cause of the marchers. Jim Reeb doesn't need much prodding. He knows he has to go. His wife, Marie, doesn't want him to go. They've got four young children. She watched the footage from Selma with him, the brutality of the troopers. Think of what could happen.

But she also knows the man she married, knows that when he's made his mind up, there's no dissuading him. So after Jim reads a bedtime story to his daughters, Marie drives him to Logan Airport. Jim arrives in Selma in time to take part in a short march, this time led by Dr. King.

That evening, Jim, along with two other white Unitarians, Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller, walk to a nearby restaurant. Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which had become an anthem for the movement, is playing over and over on the jukebox.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh, and just like the river, I've been running ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLARK OLSEN: The restaurant was very full, as it is - as I understand it - one of the two integrated restaurants in town. And I - so that particular one was quite crowded.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #1: And this was about 5:30 on Tuesday afternoon.

OLSEN: By that time, it probably was 5:30 when we got to the restaurant, yes.

GRACE: That's Clark Olsen, one of the ministers with Jim, interviewed just a few days after the attack. So the three ministers are there in Selma. They enjoy the meal on Washington Street, the conversation. And then it's time to leave. Years later, this is how the other minister with them that night, Orloff Miller, remembered the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ORLOFF MILLER: After we had eaten, there was a phone booth inside the restaurant, and so I called my wife. And then Clark and Jim both called their wives, too, from the same phone. And I went outside the restaurant while they were making their calls. I remember I bought a cigar. I still smoked in those days.

And I stood outside the restaurant smoking my cigar as the streetlights were just about to coming - they were just beginning to come on. They were these sodium-vapor lights. And I thought to myself, what a peaceful scene this is. It was dusk, and there was nobody on the streets. And I thought, this could be any Midwestern community like I grew up in in Ohio.

GRACE: After Jim has finished his long-distance call, he and Clark meet Orloff out front. And here's that moment on the street, the three ministers wondering whether to turn left or right, when everything is just about to change. That's after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: White civil rights workers in from out of town wouldn't be welcomed in Selma's white-owned restaurants. But there are two black-owned cafes on Washington Street, the Liston Clay (ph), named after the legendary heavyweight fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay, and another spot called Walker's Cafe, which everyone calls Eddie's Place (ph). And that's where they end up.

They've come to the restaurant by walking a somewhat circuitous route closer to the river, a route that had avoided a sketchy bar at the other end of the block called the Silver Moon Cafe. But again, these three ministers - Clark Olsen, Orloff Miller, Jim Reeb - they don't know Selma. They don't know about the Silver Moon Cafe. And it seems faster to turn right, and so that's what they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO SHOW HOST #1: We're speaking with the Reverend Mr. Clark B. Olsen, our guest on this special public affairs presentation at WATV. We now return. And though it may be bitter memories for you, we would like to have you give us an account of what happened, Mr. Olsen, when you left that restaurant in Selma at approximately 7 o'clock this past Tuesday night.

OLSEN: It was probably a little closer to 7:30.

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO SHOW HOST #1: And it was dark, of course.

OLSEN: It was dark at that time.

BRANTLEY: This is Clark Olsen again.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

OLSEN: I haven't yet learned what the name of the street is. We turned to the right coming out of the restaurant and went down toward the intersection. About 30 to 50 feet from the intersection, we saw a group of four or five men.

BRANTLEY: Here's Orloff Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: And as we started walking from across the street, there appeared four or five white men. And they yelled at us, hey, you niggers. And we did not look across at them, but we just sort of quickened our pace. We didn't run but continued walking in the same direction.

BRANTLEY: As these men rush across Washington Street toward them, Clark, Orloff and Jim mumble to each other not to make eye contact, to just keep walking. Clark is the farthest ahead. And as he passes by the Silver Moon Cafe, he glances back, sees that the men have caught up with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

OLSEN: They looked quite menacing, I may say, as they came across the street.

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO SHOW HOST #1: And then what happened?

OLSEN: Well, Jim Reeb was on the sidewalk nearest the street. Jim was slightly behind as we were walking. And he did not look around, as I remember it. I did look around in time to see one man with some kind of a stick or a pipe or a club swing this stick violently at Jim Reeb. He swung this stick, and it hit Jim on the side of the head. And Jim immediately fell to the pavement on his back.

BRANTLEY: The men then stand over Jim, kicking and swinging the club. Clark runs but is caught from behind and punched in the chest and face, his glasses skittering into the street. Orloff falls to the pavement next to Jim, balling himself up for protection as the attackers start kicking and punching him, too. And then, suddenly, it's over, and the men with the club are gone - just gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: Jim couldn't stand by himself. We lifted him up. And he was incoherent at first, and he was babbling. And we couldn't understand what he was saying. Gradually, he became more coherent, and he complained of the pain. And that's all he could talk about - great pain.

BRANTLEY: Orloff and Clark support Jim as they stumble a couple of blocks to the Boynton Insurance Agency, headquarters for one of the civil rights organizations. The ministers have been told to go there if there were any problems. And when they get him there, a young civil rights worker, Diane Bevel, was the first to see him.

DIANE BEVEL: They told me that they had been attacked by several white men. One of them had been hit with some type of club. And he was the one who was the most seriously injured, and that was Reverend James Reeb. He was saying that he would be all right. And the - his two friends and I were really adamant that, you have got to get medical attention.

BRANTLEY: Like everything else in Selma, the city's medical facilities were largely segregated. And because the three ministers were there in support of black voting rights, they would not have been welcome at the city's white hospitals. So Jim is rushed to a nearby medical clinic, where one of the city's two black doctors examines him and takes an X-ray of his head.

Jim goes unconscious, and the doctor decides right away that he has to be seen by a neurosurgeon. The closest one is at University Hospital in Birmingham, nearly two hours away. At this point, only an hour has passed since the attack. And already, from the pulpit of Brown AME, Martin Luther King gives an update to the crowd there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: You know, things happened here today concerning the three Unitarian ministers who were beaten about an hour or so ago. I understand one was so brutally beaten that he had to be rushed to the hospital in Birmingham with a possible brain concussion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: As King addresses the crowd, a news alert hits the wires, and soon, it's on TV - civil rights workers attacked in Selma. The word about Jim makes it out of Selma before he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: OK.

GRACE: Does this look like a Clark house?

BRANTLEY: Yeah, tidy.

GRACE: Orloff Miller died in 2015, but we found Clark Olsen living in Asheville, N.C.

GRACE: Hi.

BRANTLEY: Hey, Clark.

OLSEN: Getting pelted by falling snow here. How are you? Come on in.

BRANTLEY: Grab our stuff.

GRACE: Let us grab our stuff real quick, and we'll come right in, yeah.

OLSEN: Oh.

GRACE: We asked Clark why he decided to go to Selma in 1965 and how that choice had affected his life. But soon, we were there in the story of the night itself - Clark, Orloff and Jim walking shoulder to shoulder along the wide sidewalk, Jim on the outside edge, closest to the street.

OLSEN: Just as we were walking in there, we saw three or four men - I was quite sure at the time there were four men - who came across the street at us.

GRACE: And then the men were upon them.

OLSEN: I remember the sound of that club hitting Jim's head. And I remember him crying out when it hit him.

GRACE: At the medical clinic in Selma, Clark sat with Jim.

OLSEN: I was holding Jim's hand as the pain got worse and worse for him.

GRACE: Jim squeezed tighter and tighter. And then, suddenly, his hand went limp as he lost consciousness.

OLSEN: So I was the last person literally in touch with him before he went unconscious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Remember; Jim needed to see a neurosurgeon, and the closest one was in Birmingham. So they drove north out of downtown Selma, the three white ministers in the back of the ambulance and three black men upfront - the driver, an attendant and the doctor.

Then, a couple of miles outside of the city limits, the ambulance had a flat. The driver pulled over and tried to radio for help, but he couldn't get through. As the driver and the doctor discussed what to do, there was silence in the back, Clark and Orloff looking each other, at Jim on the stretcher.

OLSEN: And then a car full of white men pulled up on the highway behind us and stopped right behind the ambulance. And I remember - I'm not sure how much I discussed this with Orloff, but what went through my head was, oh, my gosh, this might be a conspiracy here. And I remember a rush of feeling, Clark, you just have to get out of here. Just run. Just get out of here.

GRACE: As he thought about running, something else rushed into his mind - the news flashes from the summer before in Mississippi when three civil rights workers had gone missing, and then, six weeks later, the discovery of their murdered bodies in the mud, buried deep in an earthen dam.

OLSEN: And I thought, my body might be in a ditch that night. So I was terrified. I really was. I was just terrified.

GRACE: The driver and doctor decided to head back towards Selma on the rim of the wheel to a nearby radio station where they could call for another ambulance. The car that had been trailing them turned and followed them to the station. It was a green Nash Metropolitan. Clark remembered it as being full of men. But in fact, there was just one person in the car - a white man named John South (ph). What South will later say about what he saw and didn't see that night outside the radio station - that will have serious consequences for this story. And we'll get to all that later.

But Clark, in the moment, there in the back of the ambulance, he watched as the green Nash Metropolitan turned to follow them. He and Orloff sat there in silence for what seemed like forever as their driver ran inside the radio station to call for another ambulance. As they all waited, Clark watched through the windows as several other white men arrived and circled the ambulance, peering inside, talking with the driver.

OLSEN: Suddenly, it dawned on me that Orloff and I are going to have to get out of the car and shift Jim's gurney over to the ambulance - the second ambulance. And these guys are walking around. And what were they going to do to us? I didn't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OLSEN: When we got out and I started to work to take Jim's body over, one of them came up to me and said in a very unfriendly tone something as simple as, hey, what's happening here? And all I could bring myself to say was, please don't. That's all I said - please don't. And, in fact, they did nothing. In fact, we were safe. In fact, we moved Jim's body - or Jim's unconscious body - over to the second ambulance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: In Boston, Jim Reeb's wife, Marie, heard the phone ring and rushed to pick up the receiver before it woke their four kids. She'd just talked to Jim a couple hours before, when he'd called from the pay phone of the restaurant in Selma. But now it was their minister, hoping to catch Marie before she turned on the 11 o'clock news. He told her that Jim had been involved in an incident in Selma and that he was now in an ambulance headed to Birmingham. The minister was careful to be vague about what exactly happened but told her that she should begin making arrangements to get to Alabama.

Dr. Alan Dimick was one of the surgeons on call at Birmingham's University Hospital that night. Dimick had been hired in July of 1963, just a couple of months before members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church one Sunday morning, killing four girls and injuring dozens of others. Dimick had been at the hospital, and it fell on him to pronounce the four little girls dead. And now, on the night of March 9, 1965, Dimick was home when he got a call about a head injury en route from Selma.

ALAN DIMICK: This man, the reverend, had been - had just had a meal at a restaurant, had just walked out and was attacked by a mob and got hit over the head. So I knew he had a head injury, and that's the reason I wanted to make sure a neurosurgeon was available to take care of him. When I got there to the emergency department, I was amazed at the mass of people that were there - not just the press, but everybody who was interested.

BRANTLEY: The ambulance finally pulled into the emergency room entrance around 11 p.m. Dimick remembers seeing the ER doors swing open, the stretcher with Jim rolled in.

DIMICK: I remember vividly, we brought the patient into the - one of the cubicles there. And I was standing over the head of the patient. He wasn't breathing well, so we had to do what we call a tracheotomy on him.

And I looked up, and there was the television camera grinding away. The nurse couldn't walk across the room to get a suture or get a dressing or anything because you had so many people in the room. So it was a mess. It was chaos down there, as you can well imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: By the time Marie Reeb arrived midday on Wednesday, Jim was on life support. The hospital was keeping the press away from the family but only on the promise that they could interview Marie. She desperately did not want to have to be interviewed. But those around her had told her that she had an obligation, that this tragedy was not just a personal one, but that the whole world was watching and waiting for word from her.

So just 24 hours after her husband had been attacked, Marie walked into the hospital director's office. TV cameramen, reporters, photographers - they were crowded into the cramped space. Marie sat behind the hospital director's desk. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and she looked down at them or at the microphone throughout most of the interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Was the decision for your husband to come here a mutual decision? Did you sit down together and discuss it?

MARIE REEB: Yes. He came home about 6 in the evening, and I was preparing supper, and he asked to come upstairs to discuss a matter. He said that he wanted to go to Selma and what I thought about it. And I said that I would prefer that he didn't go, but I knew how he felt, and I knew that he felt that he had to go.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Did you have any communication with your husband prior to the time he was attacked?

REEB: Yes. He called about 8 to say that everything was fine, and that he would be home the next day.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Do you think the cause of which your husband came to Selma was worth it?

REEB: I don't feel that I can answer that for myself; I can only answer for Jim, that any consequences that might occur did merit this.

GRACE: One of the last questions was about their four children - what have they been told? Marie answered, I told the children this morning, as soon as they woke up, that their father had been hurt. The youngest ones did not fully understand, but the 13-year-old was quite upset.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Howell Raines, a Birmingham native who would later go on to be executive editor of The New York Times, was a cub reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald in 1965.

HOWELL RAINES: Reeb was in the UAB Hospital for two days. And I was dispatched there and obviously covered Mrs. Reeb's press conference. But then, as a young reporter, I remember thinking, this is important. This is a nationally important event. This is not just some guy getting beaten. The world is indeed watching. The scale of this news we were covering was large and important.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHET HUNTLEY: Three white men were arrested today in Selma, Ala., on charges of assault with intent to murder three white ministers on a downtown street corner in Selma, Ala., last night.

BRANTLEY: After the violence on the bridge that Sunday, the eyes of the nation were already on Selma. The FBI, lawyers for the Department of Justice - they were all there on the ground. And protests about Bloody Sunday and now about the attack on Reeb were putting intense pressure on President Lyndon Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The events in Selma had been brought to a climax by a nighttime attack on a white Boston minister by white men. And throughout the nation, even in Canada, there were marches through the streets of towns and cities. In New York's Harlem, more than 15,000, half of them white, file somberly through the streets in quiet but agonized protest.

BRANTLEY: Civil rights protesters had even occupied part of the White House itself, and many Americans were calling on Johnson to send troops into Selma. So everyone in the White House was on edge. The president and his wife Lady Bird sent a bouquet of yellow roses to Marie at the hospital in Birmingham. The attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, called the president the day after the attack to brief him on Reeb's condition. LBJ recorded it, as he did with almost all his calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: This minister's going to die, isn't he?

NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: Yes, sir.

LYNDON B JOHNSON: Is he already dead?

KATZENBACH: No, sir.

LYNDON B JOHNSON: What time do you think he'll die?

KATZENBACH: They tell me that he could stay alive for another 24 or 36 hours under these mechanical things, but I think he'll probably die early tomorrow morning. I've arranged with the local authorities down there that, if when the minister dies, they'll file first-degree murder charges within an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUNTLEY: The next morning, the doctors huddled with the Reeb family. Ventilators were keeping Jim alive, but there was no hope of recovery. Thursday, late afternoon, Marie went to his bedside one final time. It's 6:55. For the third time in 48 hours, Jim's heart stopped. This time he was not revived. Soon after, the phone rang. It was the president and the first lady calling to offer condolences to Marie. The president told Marie that he would send a government plane to take her back to Boston. Lady Bird later recorded her memories in her audio diary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: When the news had come that the Reverend Reeb had died, Lyndon and I excused ourselves for a moment, a helpless, painful moment, to talk to Mrs. Reeb. But what is there to say? We went upstairs a little past 10. But we could hear the congressional guests still laughing and the music still going below and, out in front, the chanting of the civil rights marchers. What a house, what a life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: When Joanne Bland gives her civil rights tours of Selma, she guides visitors through a small city of 18,000 people. Selma is the fastest-shrinking city in the state, and almost 40% of the residents here live below the poverty line. Whenever we drive around town with Joanne, we pass by empty lots with overgrown weeds and trash, homes that are falling in on themselves but where people are clearly still living.

When you drive people around who are not from Alabama, who've never been to Selma before, do people comment on just how many abandoned businesses there are and how many sort of broken down buildings?

BLAND: Oh, all the time.

GRACE: I mean, do you usually talk about it with them? Like, what do you say to them?

BLAND: I tell them, we had massive white flight several times. So when you take the money out of a place, what do you expect? The system goes, the educational system goes down - everything goes down. So no jobs, people - it's hard to get any company to come here because they look back at that strife.

It never, ever recovers; it always - and then, we're so small, there's no way to hide the blight, you know? In large cities, they'll just kill off a section (laughter). Yeah, they'll never take you over there if you're visiting. But in Selma, you - everything that you need to see is where the blight is. I'm getting hot. Let's get out of the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS CLOSING)

GRACE: Joanne has brought us to one more stop - Brown Chapel AME, the nerve center of the movement in Selma. And what Joanne wants to show us is this giant granite marker out in front. It commemorates the voting rights campaign. Up top is a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. Below that, the names of Jim Reeb and two other people killed during the Selma campaign in the first months of 1965.

So tell me about - I mean, since this is radio, tell me about the names because we talked about that a little.

BLAND: Well, they talk about three of the deaths that were directly related to the Selma struggle. Reverend James Reeb, Unitarian minister from Boston; Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Detroit housewife; and Jimmie Lee Jackson, young man who was shot in Marion by a state trooper.

Well, let's go up a little higher. You see, they say they gave their lives (laughter). They didn't give anything; they were murdered by hateful, racist people. Quit saying it. They were murdered. Their lives were taken, not given - they were taken.

GRACE: Jim Reeb's death, it can't be separated from these other murders. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a local black activist and deacon in the Baptist Church, was killed first, shot in mid-February, 30 miles away in the town of Marion. And, it's important to say, his death is the initial catalyst for the march that would become Bloody Sunday. So Jim Reeb would never have been in Selma without Jackson's murder. In 2010, 45 years later, the white state trooper who pulled the trigger admitted to shooting Jackson. He spent only five months in jail.

Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, was killed after Jim Reeb in late March. She had come south to help with the voting rights movement. And while driving between Selma and Montgomery, she was overtaken by a car full of Klansmen who shot into her car and killed her. Two of the men spent 10 years in prison. Another man died before sentencing, and another man in the car, because he was an FBI informant, lived the rest of his life in the Witness Protection Program.

But of these deaths associated with the voting rights struggle in Selma, only Jim Reebs' remains officially unsolved. Three men were arrested and charged with his murder. But at a trial in December of 1965, it took a jury only 97 minutes to find the defendants not guilty. The FBI reopened the case in 2008, but they, too, eventually abandoned it, saying, quote, "The matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed," end quote. To this day, no one has ever been held accountable for the murder of Jim Reeb.

BLAND: But why? 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 did that come about, that we could solve Jimmie's, but we can't solve Reeb's? So why is it so hard to find these people who know about Reeb?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: When we first started all this, that was our question, too - why is it so hard to know who killed Jim Reeb? This case, which drew the eyes of the nation - of the president - how could it have not been solved? But it didn't take long to be reminded that in the South, there are no simple questions about the past. And as we started reaching out to people for this story, we found a pervasive silence that fell over so many Selmians with any mention of Reeb's name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: New messages. Message one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. I understand you wanted to talk to me about whatever it is. Leave me out of it.

BRANTLEY: Over the past three years, we've had plenty of calls like this and doors slammed in our faces, a pistol brandished, and one man my father's age even lunged at me, grabbed me by the throat and threatened to put me in a garbage can, whatever that means. But we kept going back.

We've talked to hundreds of people here and across the country. We've poured through thousands of pages of documents. We've made a dozen trips to archives, and we've talked, and we've argued, and we've driven back and forth to Selma countless times. And we've done all this because we wanted to know who killed Jim Reeb. We wanted to know why the truth about his murder has been so obscured and why it seemed so many people were intent on keeping it that way. And now we know, and that's the story we're going to tell you.

GRACE: The stories we tell about ourselves, they feel true and permanent, like the skin we were born into. But what if you found out that a story you believe so strongly, something you and the people around you had staked so much of your lives on - what if you found out that that story was a lie? What would you do - believe the truth, or keep believing the lie? From NPR, this is WHITE LIES, the true story of what happened to Jim Reeb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE SPEEDWAY")

THE DEXATEENS: (Singing) It's a shame. It's a sin. I don't care. That's the way it's always been. Drop that flag. Pack it in. I tell ya (ph), some things just don't need to rise again. But I've been told, but I've been told, but I've been told to leave it alone.

BRANTLEY: WHITE LIES is produced by us, Graham Smith, Nicole Beemsterboer and Connor Towne O'Neill, with help from Cat Schuknecht. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom.

GRACE: Robert Little is our editor, with big assists from N'Jeri Eaton, Keith Woods and Chris Turpin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE SPEEDWAY")

THE DEXATEENS: (Singing) See your Haley, see your Trent, see a rich man that'll hate to pay his rent. Hey, Judge Roy, you sacred son, blue-eyed Jesus with a Bible and a gun. But I've been told, but I've been told, but I've been told to leave it alone. Rebel man, Alabam' (ph), gets so hard sometimes to give a damn.

GRACE: Audio engineers include James Willits (ph) and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd. Special thanks to The Dexateens for the use of this song, "Take Me To The Speedway," courtesy of Estrus Records and Dave Crider.

BRANTLEY: Archival tape in this episode comes from Washington University in St. Louis, ABC News, NBC News, Pacifica Radio, WATV Birmingham, eFootage and The Associated Press. A big thank you to Chuck Holmes and the staff of WBHM in Birmingham, also Micah Ratner and Ashley Messenger from NPR's legal team, and Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE SPEEDWAY")

THE DEXATEENS: (Singing) Take me to the shoreline. Dip me in the warm brine. Wash away the bad times. Take me to the speedway. Drive me through the red clay. We'll just go in circles every day.

GRACE: Thanks to the team that created a visual record of this story - Alyson Hurt, Scott Stroud, Thomas Wilburn, Ben de la Cruz, Nicole Werbeck and Desiree Hicks. Check out npr.org/whitelies. Our project manager is Mathilde Piard. Neal Carruth is general manager for podcasts. And Anya Grundmann is NPR's senior vice president for programming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE SPEEDWAY")

THE DEXATEENS: (Singing) Take me to the shoreline. Dip me in the warm brine. Wash away the bad times. Take me to the speedway. Drive me through the red clay. We'll just go in circles every day. Take me to the shoreline. Dip me in the warm brine. Wash away the bad times. Take me to the speedway. Drive me through the red clay. We'll just go in circles every day.

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