Aftermath Of The Murder: Episode 2 NPR White Lies Civil Rights Crime Podcast In Episode 2, we unravel the aftermath of the Rev. James Reeb's murder: the arrest of three men and the defense brought at trial. We also track down the last living jurors.
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The Who And The What

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The Who And The What

The Who And The What

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ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST:

Previously on WHITE LIES...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CLARK OLSEN: We saw a group of four or five men coming toward us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: These were all white men?

OLSEN: These were all white men.

ORLOFF MILLER: And one of them was carrying a club.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I understand one was so brutally beaten that he had to be rushed to the hospital in Birmingham with a possible brain concussion.

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

NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do you think the cause of which your husband came to Selma was worth it?

JOANNE BLAND: Why? It would seem as though his would've been solved quicker and all of it would have come to light because he was a white man. But so why is it so hard to find these people who know about Reeb?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Jim Reeb was attacked on the night of March 9, 1965, on a street corner in Selma, Ala. He died two days later in Birmingham. In December of that year, three men were tried for his murder and acquitted. No one else was investigated for the crime, and the case has been cold for decades. And that's it. That's all you could definitively say about this case. So without facts, without consensus, without any resolution, rumors and myths made their way in. And when we started asking questions, everyone seemed to have a story about what had happened to Reeb.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Stories that went flying going around.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Anything that happens, there's always a second story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: They say, oh, yeah, he really wasn't. It was the bad doctors or something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Well, you know, did he hit his head on the pavement?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Slow ambulances to Birmingham.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I think they killed the man on the way to Birmingham. I just swore 'cause I always will believe it.

CHIP BRANTLEY, HOST:

I always will believe it. So much of what people believe about what happened to Jim Reeb is shaped by what they believe about Selma, about 1965, about the civil rights movement and about race in America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: What else was going on behind that we didn't know? It's so much in our blood here that, you know, sometimes you don't know what the truth really is. You just don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Why was it so hard to know the truth about who killed Jim Reeb? It turns out the answer was embedded in these stories, these rumors about motive, negligence, the nature of Reeb's injuries. So today - a story about stories, stories about what happened that night and what it meant. We pick up at the moment after Reeb's murder to see how these stories were born, to find out who created them and why.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I'm Chip Brantley.

GRACE: And I'm Andrew Beck Grace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Monday, The Ides of March. Today, I'm dieting - endless cups of black coffee, one egg for lunch, and then I did sit down with Lyndon and Walter Lippmann but for the conversation, not the food.

BRANTLEY: It's Monday, March 15, 1965. This is Lady Bird Johnson's audio diary. The first lady is recounting some decorating issues in the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Possible offer of a lovely Aubusson rug for the Blue Room. We decided to accept it.

BRANTLEY: But most of what this diary entry is about is what's going to happen that night. President Johnson is slated to give a speech to a televised joint session of Congress. But the speech, which millions of people around the nation will soon be watching, isn't finished yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: As the afternoon wore on, the tension began to mount for everybody in Lyndon's office, I'm sure. At 6 o'clock, Lyndon was in his pajamas but far from resting. The speech was being brought over to him a page at a time. This was still going on at 7 o'clock, and he had to be on the stand delivering it at 9.

BRANTLEY: On the drive from the White House to the Capitol building, the presidential motorcade has to navigate through civil rights protesters. Many are holding signs about Selma, about the murder of Jim Reeb. They're singing "We Shall Overcome." Many Americans don't trust Johnson, this Texan with his thick accent, to actually do anything about what's been happening in Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: As I entered the chamber, Fishbait Miller's stentorian voice announcing the president of the United States.

WILLIAM MILLER: The president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

GRACE: The scenes of Bloody Sunday, the murder of Jim Reeb, what's happened the week before in Alabama is the occasion of the speech. It's galvanized Johnson to finally address one of the core grievances of the civil rights movement - voting rights for African Americans in the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Ala. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

BRANTLEY: This good man, that's Jim Reeb, and nearly everyone in the country would have known his name at this moment. The speech is considered the greatest Johnson ever gave, one of the greatest speeches ever made by a sitting president. And it's all designed to announce his intention to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress. One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, this bill would place all eleven of the former Confederate states under federal voting supervision. This bill would eliminate the Jim Crow measures that had disenfranchised millions of black Americans. This bill would transform American democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Their cause must be our cause, too, because it's not just negroes, but, really, it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

(APPLAUSE)

GRACE: Martin Luther King Jr. is in Selma watching the speech on television with some of his closest aides. And when Johnson says, we shall overcome, the signature line of the civil rights movement, one of his aides watches King wipe tears from his cheeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

GRACE: The same day LBJ gives his most famous speech, Martin Luther King delivers the eulogy at a memorial service for Jim Reeb in Selma. During the service at Brown Chapel, the overflow crowd sings freedom songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

GRACE: There's only one recording of the service, and the sound quality is not great.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb.

GRACE: King has given a eulogy like this before. In fact, he's given a few of them. In September of 1963, he preached at a memorial service for the girls killed in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham. And less than two weeks before Reeb's service, he'd stood at this very same pulpit in Selma memorializing Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder had been the spark for the march that became Bloody Sunday. These eulogies, they have a lot in common with the eulogy for Jim Reeb, and in the archives of King's papers, you can see his handwritten notes, taking the first sermon and tailoring it to these other occasions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike - says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.

GRACE: If you didn't catch that, King said we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder. This distinction between the who and the what, that's an important part of King's message in all three of these sermons. But the four little girls, Jimmie Lee Jackson - they were black.

Reeb, of course, is white. And to a country that values white lives over black lives, it means that Reeb's murder, not Jimmie Lee Jackson's, is the one protested around the nation. It's Reeb's death invoked in the greatest speech Johnson ever makes. So in his eulogy for Reeb, King does something he didn't do in the eulogies of the little girls and Jimmie Lee Jackson. He wonders aloud what a white man's death might mean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: James Reeb may cause the whole citizenry of Alabama to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.

GRACE: This tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. In the weeks after King gave this eulogy, three men were indicted for first-degree murder. A little over eight months later in December with the town decorated for Christmas and the upstairs of Tepper's department store holding its annual winter wonderland for the white children of Selma, there would be a trial.

If King were right, that the white South might now be forced to come to terms with its conscience, there would have been no better place to see this than during the investigation and the trial for the murder of Jim Reeb. King billed this moment as a reckoning, but was it? This opportunity for the white South to come to terms with its conscience, what did they do with it?

BRANTLEY: Hello. Hi, is Mary Jane here?

The first thing we did when we started working on the story was to look for the trial transcript in Selma.

We were just next door looking for where the archival records might be.

Much of the Dallas County Courthouse in downtown Selma looks exactly the same as it did in 1965. On the second floor is the courtroom where the trial took place.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON STAIRS)

BRANTLEY: We'd come here looking for the transcript but also really for anything related to the investigation and the trial.

...Scattered, but is there a second basement in this building - like a basement basement?

GRACE: So we are in the basement of the Dallas County Courthouse.

BRANTLEY: The dream is for that box over there, under that blue box with the manila folder sticking out, for it to be the trial transcript for the Jim Reeb trial in December of 1965.

GRACE: Because the trial resulted in an acquittal, we're told it's unlikely a transcript was ever produced. Or if one was, then one of the court reporters would have had the original. But we went down this road, and all the court reporters from that time are long gone. A granddaughter of one says everything was thrown out in the '80s. The trial judge didn't keep his papers, and his grandson says the only thing left of his records is an old briefcase, nothing in there about the Reeb trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And the police department's files, they're simply gone - no satisfying explanation. And none of the investigators are still alive. It was 54 years ago. The prosecutor and the defense attorney are both dead, and their children are no help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And then someone tells us about records housed at the Dallas County jail. And there, in a repurposed custodial closet, we discover leaning towers of old boxes filled with mug shots, court files, ledgers. And in one of those ledgers from 1965, we do find something, a small mention of Reeb's alleged attackers being booked. It's just one tiny crumb, but it's enough to keep us on the trail until we hear about the main storage facility for the judicial archives of Dallas County.

Now, I don't know what the phrase judicial archives conjures in your mind, but it's probably not a picture of what we found. Over a century of Dallas County's legal proceedings are jammed into a large, windowless metal shed behind the Enterprise Rent-A-Car on the highway out of town.

The light doesn't work. It's like numbered doors. You feel like you're - what's in door No. 1?

BRANTLEY: We spend days inside these storage rooms, look carefully through every box, examine every stack. We find court logs from the 1860s written in gorgeous, flowing script - property disputes, family disputes, business disputes, dozens and dozens of booking logs, a catalog through the years of Selma's sins.

GRACE: Criminal indictments, criminal disposed of, 1896.

BRANTLEY: Murders, arsons, assaults, larceny of a hog, kidnappings, indecent exposures, hunting rabbits at night - basically a deep history of Dallas County, all its strivings and failings. But we find nothing related to the Reeb trial.

GRACE: We hear many reasons for why the Reeb stuff may be gone - some natural causes, a flood in the courthouse basement, a fire in the '70s, an attic roof caved in under tons of pigeon shit. And there are rumors of records from this era being stolen, destroyed, stashed away for safekeeping until - until something. Whatever the cause, natural disaster or manmade, it's as if all the records from the Reeb case have been scrubbed from Dallas County's collective memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: But we do find evidence elsewhere. From the National Archives in both D.C. and Atlanta, we'd gathered reams of correspondence and notes about the case from the FBI and Department of Justice. And then there's all the press coverage. Many of the major newspapers had sent correspondents to Selma for the trial. And Reeb's denomination, the Unitarian Universalists, had sent two observers who wrote extensive reports on the trial. So in the absence of a trial transcript, we took all those documents and reports, and we made a 69-page timeline of what had happened during the trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON BAKER: The Selma Police Department, in cooperation with all other law enforcement agencies, is working today on this assault last night.

GRACE: The morning after the attack on Jim Reeb, the city's public safety director meets a scrum of reporters outside of Brown Chapel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAKER: We have in custody now, charged with assault with intent to murder, one William Stanley Hoggle and an R.B. Kelley and Elmer Cook. We are looking for the fourth man, but these three are in custody, charged with assault with intent to murder. At the present time we are holding them. Gentlemen, I cannot go into any details of the case.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Could you give their names again?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Are they all from Selma?

BAKER: They're all from Selma, Ala.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: All white?

BAKER: All white.

GRACE: Charges are ultimately dropped against R.B. Kelley. But another man would be arrested the following day, the brother of one of the men already arrested, Namon O’Neal Hoggle, whom everyone calls Duck. Duck and Stanley Hoggle are in the used car business. And Elmer Cook runs a place called C&C Novelty Company, which is a cheap clothing store. He's also a loan shark. His clientele is almost entirely poor black people.

After the arrests, the front page of the Selma Times-Journal details the men's criminal records. Stanley Hoggle has been arrested four times for drunk driving. Elmer Cook, who is clearly the ringleader of the gang, has 25 arrests in just over a dozen years. Seventeen of them are for assault and battery. Model citizens they are not. Even so, after Reeb dies and the charges against them are upgraded to murder, prominent business owners from across Dallas County co-sign their bonds. They're bailed out without ever spending a night in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And a week later, one local businessman writes a letter to the editor in the paper, imploring every white citizen to contribute to a legal defense fund for the men arrested. The letter reads, quote, "it is the duty of every white citizen to see that those white citizens have legal help. Selma is fighting almost alone. But Selma is not fighting for itself alone. It is fighting for everything that stands for decency and Western civilization."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Exactly two weeks after Reeb died, another white Northerner was murdered in Alabama. Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit, had come to Selma to help out with a successful march to Montgomery. And on the evening of March 25, she was making one more run, heading to the capital to collect marchers and then ferry them back to Selma. A car full of Klansmen chased her down and shot into the vehicle, killing Liuzzo and wounding the young black man who was with her.

This took place in Lowndes County, east of Selma. And even though Reeb was killed before Liuzzo, her murder was prosecuted first. And what would happen in the Liuzzo trial would, in many ways, operate as a preview of the Reeb trial.

GRACE: Oh, it's so nice.

BRANTLEY: I know.

GRACE: Can I live here?

BRANTLEY: I know.

GRETCHEN: Hello.

GRACE: Hello.

BRANTLEY: How are you?

GRETCHEN: How are you?

GRACE: I'm Andy.

GRETCHEN: I'm Gretchen.

GRACE: Nice to see you, Gretchen.

GRETCHEN: I'm Joe's daughter.

BRANTLEY: Hi, Gretchen. I'm Chip.

GRETCHEN: Chip...

BRANTLEY: We've come to the Gulf Coast of Florida to visit Joe Breck Gantt, who prosecuted the Liuzzo case, which was held in the town of Hayneville. In 1965, Gantt was an assistant attorney general for Alabama.

JOE BRECK GANTT: I was living in Montgomery at the time I went down to Hayneville. And of course, we knew pretty well it was going to be almost impossible to get a conviction. But we tried.

GRACE: The defense attorney was a Klansman whose title was imperial Klonsel. That's Klan-speak for counsel. The imperial wizard of the Klan sat at the defense table. Lowndes County was 80% black. But because the jury pool was generated from the list of registered voters, there were no black people in that jury pool because no black person had ever been allowed to register to vote in Lowndes County.

...About that. But can you talk about just walking into the courtroom and what that was like and the hostility you faced?

GANTT: They weren’t very friendly. We had people grabbing at us. They were not only grabbing at us, but they were calling us white niggers, which, that was a new term for me. The judge tried to stop that, I think, the name calling. But it went on.

GRACE: A neo-Nazi freely distributed literature to the spectators. The judge did nothing to stop people rummaging through Liuzzo's bloodstained purse, which had been entered into evidence. In his closing argument filled with the most noxious of racial slurs, the defense attorney/imperial Klonsel said, quote, "I'm proud to be white. And I stand here as a white man, and I say we're never going to mongrelize the race," end quote.

But in the end, something completely unexpected happened. There was a hung jury. All but two of the jurors actually voted for a conviction. Attorney Joe Breck Gantt had gotten closer to a conviction than nearly any other Southern prosecutor in a racially motivated case like this one. While the retrial was still months away, a retrial of Liuzzo's killers was set for early October, 1965. And the attorney general of Alabama, a man named Richmond Flowers, decided to head up the case. Gantt would be his assistant.

Did you think it was a bad idea for Richmond to go for the second trial? Or...

GANTT: Yeah, I mean, I thought there was no chance at all. Richmond, he was real unpopular then. He criticized the governor publicly. But George Wallace was well liked by most Alabamians, unfortunately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE WALLACE: In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth...

BRANTLEY: George Wallace. Here he is during his inauguration for the first of his four terms as governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

(CHEERING)

BRANTLEY: In '65, Wallace was two years into his first term. He had already famously stood in the schoolhouse door attempting to physically block the enrollment of African American students at the University of Alabama. And his entire political identity in this era was wrapped up in maintaining segregation and defending white supremacy. And because of this, he was incredibly popular among whites in Alabama.

GRACE: Richmond Flowers, the attorney general set to try the Liuzzo case, was a political opponent of Wallace. On the very same day Wallace was declaring segregation forever, Flowers was giving his own speech, predicting that, quote, "Alabama's soul will soon be laid bare before the world. God grant that we may not be ashamed of it," end quote. If any political figure in Alabama was banking on white Southerners coming to terms with their conscience, it was Richmond Flowers. And as he prepared for the Liuzzo trial, it was clear to him that there would never be a fair verdict in these racially motivated cases so long as the jury was composed entirely of white men who believed in white supremacy.

So Flowers decided to try something unconventional. During jury selection, he and Gantt would ask the jurors if they believed white people were superior to black people and if they felt superior to the white people who came South to help black people. Nearly every juror questioned believed in white supremacy. One juror even replied that everybody had some good in them except blacks and civil rights workers.

Flowers asked the judge, how can the state of Alabama expect a fair and just verdict in this case from men who have already sat in judgment on the victim and pronounced her inferior to themselves? But the judge and, ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against his motion to strike these jurors. The retrial ended - to no one's surprise - with a not guilty verdict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mr. Flowers, what do you think after this verdict?

RICHMOND FLOWERS: Not a thing in the world, just exactly like I said when I came down here - I didn't expect to get one. It's a terrible situation, gentlemen, but justice, law and order have completely broken down. It's unbelievable that the evidence was presented to that court, that such a verdict could be returned. But that's it, and that's what we'll have to live with.

GRACE: Flowers and Gantt both paid a personal price for their activities in the '60s. Gantt had two young daughters in 1965. And when we went to interview him, his youngest daughter, Gretchen, sat beside him.

I know that you - I've read, at least, that there were some acts of hatred toward you and burned crosses, I know, in - at least in Richmond's case. And the entire state seemed to be turned against you. Do you have any recollection of all of that, of that atmosphere that you worked in in the '60s?

GANTT: Yeah, I was aware of being ostracized. Other lawyers didn't want to have anything to do with us - a lot of bad stuff.

GRETCHEN: My recollection - I remember we had to have our phone number changed. And we had to go live with Granny for a while 'cause you were worried about us.

GANTT: A baby cross burned in the yard.

GRETCHEN: That's right. And I remember you telling us not to answer the phone. And there was a fear.

GANTT: I guess I was a little scared myself. Her sister asked me if I was afraid. I said, who wouldn't be?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANTT: I wish I could've done more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GANTT: Those sort of things are hard to live with, but we must.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Long before outside civil rights groups arrived in town, the Department of Justice had been investigating Selma's abysmal record on registering black voters. And in 1964, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against the city of Selma for voter suppression - a remarkable suit, the first of its kind. Named in the suit were the circuit and probate judges, the local district attorney and the sheriff, a man named Jim Clark.

Sheriff Jim Clark was a big man, quick-tempered, often wearing a police helmet and carrying a billy club. For Americans watching the news from Alabama unfold every night, he looked like a parody of the bitter and racist Southern sheriff. And to top it off, he was famous for wearing a lapel pin that simply read NEVER in all caps - his response to integration attempts.

GRACE: Sheriff Jim Clark's most notorious tool was his posse. Around 300 able-bodied white men in Selma had been deputized in part to break up labor strikes and defend segregation. But the posse was known to stray from Selma for any integration activity. They'd been at the Stand at the Schoolhouse Door in Tuscaloosa in 1963. They'd been in Marion the night Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper. And many had been mounted on horseback on the bridge during Bloody Sunday.

The posse was instructed to use whatever force was necessary to repel any attack made against the peace and dignity of Dallas County. During their swearing-in ceremony, the district attorney had implored them that, quote, "the day of passive resistance has passed."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: That district attorney was a man named Blanchard McLeod. Like Sheriff Jim Clark, McLeod had been named in the 1964 DOJ lawsuit as suppressing black voters. McLeod was a well-known segregationist and had been the prosecutor in Dallas County for a long time. And now, in December of 1965, as the Reeb trial was about to get underway, it was McLeod who was tasked with heading up the prosecution. Yes, this was like the fox guarding the henhouse.

BRANTLEY: Department of Justice attorneys in Selma had exchanged private notes about McLeod. One wrote, McLeod's description of other evidence which should be known to him seems fuzzy. On this basis, it is not anticipated that he will have a very forceful presentation of the murder case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES QUINN: Some people have been saying the state has little chance for conviction. Circuit solicitor Blanchard McLeod, the chief prosecutor, in an unusual comment seemed to agree.

BLANCHARD MCLEOD: I do not have a strong case. It is a weak case.

QUINN: Why is it weak, sir?

MCLEOD: I do not have the facts.

QUINN: What do you mean, sir, you don't have...

MCLEOD: I do not have the people that saw it that I can put on the stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Fred Graham, then a legal correspondent for The New York Times, remembers talking to McLeod.

FRED GRAHAM: He told me that he had a weak case. And I asked him - I said, well, why did you have a trial if you thought that it would never go to a conviction? And he said, well, I did it because people like you, if we didn't at least bring him to trial, would write stories lambasting the community.

GRACE: When he told you that, did he seem angry...

GRAHAM: No.

GRACE: ...That he knew that was true?

GRAHAM: No. We were - he was very jovial about it. This was a telephone conversation, but I could just imagine in my mind how he was grinning.

GRACE: On December 7, 1965, and after months of delay, the Reeb trial finally got underway in a wood-paneled courtroom on the second floor of the Dallas County courthouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HUNTLEY-BRINKLEY REPORT")

CHET HUNTLEY: Today, William Hoggle, Elmer Cook and Namon O'Neal Hoggle went on trial in Selma, Ala., charged with murdering a white civil rights worker. The Reverend James Reeb was bludgeoned to death as he left the restaurant...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The courtroom was full with dozens standing at the back, a smaller, segregated section for the black observers. The defendants' wives sat on the row behind the defense table. First order of business was jury selection. The Alabama attorney general, Richmond Flowers - the one who had prosecuted the Liuzzo case - was Blanchard McLeod's boss. And in jury selection, Flowers insisted that McLeod follow the precedent of the Liuzzo trial by questioning the racial views of potential jurors. And so he did - kind of.

Apologizing, McLeod explained this line of questioning wasn't his idea, that the attorney general had made him do it. One of the Unitarian observers noted that in a nearly inaudible voice, McLeod asked the potential jurors whether they felt superior to black people or to white civil rights workers. The question was so hard to hear that the judge had to repeat it.

The only other footage we have of Blanchard McLeod talking about the Reeb case is from a recess moments after jury selection. He's wearing a dark suit. He's 52 years old. Reporters surround him, and he seems nervous, like he doesn't know where to look. A reporter asks him about the racial bias question in jury selection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: What was the purpose of that question?

MCLEOD: That question was asked at the instructions and the order of the attorney general of the state of Alabama, Mr. Richmond Flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Do you think that question should have been asked, Mr. McLeod?

MCLEOD: No, I do not.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Could I ask you why, sir?

MCLEOD: Because it would bring prejudice into the case.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: But wouldn't you want to know about this prejudice beforehand?

MCLEOD: Yes, I would.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: And isn't the only way you could know about it through this question?

MCLEOD: No. I know 75% or 80% of the jurors out there and have known them for 10 or 15 years.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: You can tell just offhand whether they're going to give you a fair verdict or not?

MCLEOD: I have - oh - yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: One other question, Mr. McLeod - is the atmosphere here in Selma conducive for a fair trial?

MCLEOD: It is. I have great faith and confidence in the people here in Selma.

GRACE: The jury was eventually seated - 12 white men. Among them was a man known to have escorted the leader of the American Nazi Party around town for a few days. Another had resigned from his church after it became integrated. And still another was the brother of one of the primary defense witnesses.

The defense attorney was a man named Joe Pilcher. And where the prosecutor, Blanchard McLeod, had been nervous and evasive, Pilcher seemed poised and confident. Pilcher was one of the most well-respected attorneys in Selma. And at least in front of television cameras, he struck a very different tone than McLeod. Here's Pilcher being asked his thoughts on the question McLeod had reluctantly asked the jury pool.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE PILCHER: I feel that was a legitimate question for the prosecution to ask. It would indicate the existence of bias or prejudice, which, although not grounds for statutory disqualification, would mean that the prosecution should challenge.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: You don't feel that the case - that question prejudiced your case?

PILCHER: No, sir, I do not. It was a fair question.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: What is your reaction to the prosecutor saying that you virtually cannot win this case?

PILCHER: I'm not aware that the prosecutor had said that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Well, he did, sir. He said he thought he had a weak case. Do you think you've got a strong one?

PILCHER: I don't feel that's any case at all, frankly. Of course, I'm the defense counsel.

BRANTLEY: So both sides - the prosecutor McLeod and the defense attorney Pilcher - seemed to agree that the case against the defendants was weak before it even began. But that wasn't the consensus of the FBI and the Department of Justice. One DOJ attorney wrote, quote, "no fair-minded person would deny the guilt of Elmer Cook and Stanley Hoggle," end quote.

Three eyewitnesses who were willing to talk had identified them within hours of the attack. And two of the three defendants were already known to the FBI because they had disrupted a civil rights march the day before Bloody Sunday by driving a smoking car near a crowd of demonstrators.

On Bloody Sunday, an FBI agent had seen the men at the foot of the bridge armed with clubs. And a friend of the defendants' told the FBI that the same afternoon Reeb was attacked, they'd been driving around with a .38 Special, a club and brass knuckles blowing the horn at civil rights workers. And then that evening, less than a half hour before Reeb was assaulted, a group of civil rights medical workers had been harassed and threatened just down the street from where Reeb was attacked. And they positively identified Elmer Cook as the man who had threatened them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OLSEN: I was aware that, so far as I knew, I would be the only eyewitness to who swung the club.

BRANTLEY: The first person to testify at trial was Clark Olsen, one of the two men attacked with Reeb. From his very first interview with police after the attack, Olsen maintained that four or five men attacked them, not just the three defendants. And he says the same at trial. Olsen stood and pointed out Elmer Cook, saying there was no doubt in his mind that it was Elmer who had attacked him.

OLSEN: I remember feeling some sense of responsibility coupled with the fear that I'm standing in this Southern courtroom, and I'm saying you did it and I'm being, quote, "protected" by Sheriff Clark's deputies. So that fear didn't go away for years. I always had this probably irrational feeling of I'm still not absolutely safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The next witness was Orloff Miller, the other minister with Olsen and Reeb that night. He, too, identified Elmer Cook as the leader of the attackers. But after the testimony of Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller, the state's case went off the rails. While there were many people on the street that night, the prosecutor could find only three eyewitnesses who indicated they would testify. The first eyewitness was declared mentally incompetent, based on the testimony of a family doctor who never examined the man. The next witness was R.B. Kelley, the man initially suspected as a fourth attacker, but Kelley took his attorney's advice and plead the Fifth. The last witness fled to Mississippi, refusing to return for the trial. And so with their case in shambles, the state rested.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: The defense attorney, Joe Pilcher, was clearly more prepared. In his opening statement, Pilcher told the jury that Selma and now this courtroom itself was the focus of so much negative national attention. He implored the jurors not to be influenced by what he called the unfriendly press. He summoned nearly 150 witnesses, almost all of them character witnesses.

None of the character witnesses actually testified, a DOJ attorney noted, but the jury saw all these good men of Selma in court willing to testify on the defendants' behalf. Pilcher argued two lines of defense. The first line of defense was that these were not the men who did it. Even though the defendants were on the street that night, friends testified that they were elsewhere during the attack. The alibi - the most common defense strategy.

GRACE: But his second line of defense was anything but common.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Pilcher claimed that the civil rights movement was in need of a martyr, that it would have been in the interest of the movement to have Reeb die. Then, without clear evidence to back this assertion, he insinuated that the injuries Reeb received on the street in Selma were not severe enough to kill him, that when he arrived at the hospital in Birmingham, he had another set of injuries. Of all the archival news footage we gathered in researching and reporting this story, only one clip included any audio from the trial. And it's less than a minute long. But it includes this bit from Pilcher's closing argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PILCHER: And I submit to you gentlemen that under the law of this state and without regard to whether these men had committed this attack or whether they didn't, under the law of this state, gentlemen, if this death resulted from this malpractice, this gross, intentional, deliberate death caused by inattention and improper medical treatment, then, gentlemen, these defendants could not under the law be convicted of murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And with that, the defense rested its case. It was Friday, December 10. The jury was charged a little before 3 p.m. and they deliberated for just 97 minutes. A Boston Globe reporter observed the verdict would have come sooner if Sheriff Jim Clark hadn't spilled the Cokes he was carrying to the jurors.

When the foreman announced the not guilty verdict, the whites in the courtroom burst into applause. The black spectators stood to leave but were ordered back to their seats. The defendants stood for hugs and pictures and made no comment to the press. And there it was. The white South had declined another opportunity to come to terms with its conscience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The 12 white men who comprised the jury went back to living their lives - a logger, a mail carrier, a truck driver, a cigar store employee, a manager of an electric company. After finding the jury rolls in the Dallas County archives behind the Enterprise Rent-A-Car, we began searching for living jurors, and we came up with a match - Cooper DeRamus. The Cooper DeRamus we found in the books was 92 years old and living not too far from Selma.

BRANTLEY: Good morning.

COOPER DERAMUS: Good morning.

BRANTLEY: How are you doing?

DERAMUS: How are you?

BRANTLEY: Hey, my name is Chip Brantley. This is Andy Grace.

GRACE: Hey, how are you? Nice to see you.

BRANTLEY: We are working on a radio project about a trial in Selma in 1965 that we think you were a juror on. Does that ring a bell?

DERAMUS: I ain't going to talk to you about that.

BRANTLEY: Not - you don't want to...

DERAMUS: That's a thing of the past. It's all gone. It'd be better if it's forgot about. I guess I'm the only juror left.

BRANTLEY: People do...

DERAMUS: And I don't give a hoot what I'll say; I'll be misquoted and lied about, and I've had enough. I'm up to here.

BRANTLEY: We understand.

DERAMUS: My memory, I think, is still fairly accurate, but it might not be completely. So I might...

BRANTLEY: OK, sir.

DERAMUS: It'd be better just to let it go.

BRANTLEY: All right.

GRACE: See you. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: On opening the door, Cooper DeRamus had smiled at the two of us - strangers. He'd even stepped aside to welcome us in. But at the mention of the trial, he physically recoiled. His smile faded. He took a step back, like he'd suddenly come upon a rattlesnake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: How are you doing?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BILLY BOOZER: All right.

BRANTLEY: We were hoping we'd come back - we were - I was interested at the time in the Jim Reeb trial back in '65.

GRACE: But Cooper DeRamus wasn't the only living juror; there was one other still alive.

BOOZER: Oooh (ph), that's been a long...

BRANTLEY: (Laughter).

GRACE: The man's name is Billy Boozer. He's a retired postal worker.

BOOZER: Come on in.

BRANTLEY: OK, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BOOZER: Come on, come on, come on.

GRACE: The first time we dropped by, Boozer didn't want to do an interview about the trial. But we came back, and he finally agreed to sit down with us.

BOOZER: From what I heard in the trial and my view of it, those boys did, you know, assault those boys on the street - assault them on the street. But he was killed on the way to Birmingham, in my view, and that's just about what I concluded, you know, my conclusion was. And as far as I was concerned, I feel like that's what happened, and I always will be, from what I heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: And we sat there and talked with Boozer in his wood-paneled living room in Selma, the curtains drawn against the midday sun, two lunker bass mounted on either side of the picture window, a six-point buck mounted above the flat-screen. On one wall, a pencil-drawn portrait of Bear Bryant, the famous Alabama football coach, a patron saint for half the state. On the other, framed Confederate dollars - actually, counterfeit Confederate dollars.

BRANTLEY: Did you think there was any chance those guys were going to be convicted?

BOOZER: I don't think, you know, that the thing they were being accused of was, you know, what really happened. He got hit down there now, I'm pretty sure. But when they were going - when they were taking him to Birmingham, I think that's when the man got hurt.

BRANTLEY: So what do you think they did to him on the way?

BOOZER: I don't know what exactly they did to him. But I think he had some pretty bad head damage.

BRANTLEY: So we talked...

BOOZER: You know, you can hit somebody and knock them out, you know, and kill them pretty easily after he's already down (laughter), already been hit. I think they meant - wanted a man to die; that's all. I don't think he got killed out on Washington Street or hit enough to get killed. I think they killed the man on the way to Birmingham. I just - I always will believe it.

Now, whether they did or not, I don't know. But I sure wasn't in the wagon with them. But I believed it when they - you know, when they got there, he was about dead, anyhow, or he might have died on the way.

BRANTLEY: This idea that Reeb was murdered by his friends on the ambulance ride to Birmingham is astounding. The 12 jurors in 1965 believed it, and 50 years later, at least one of them still did. And Boozer wasn't alone in believing it. From the moment we started reporting, we've heard versions of this story, that Reeb's companions either delayed getting Reeb help, or that they did something else to Reeb on the way to Birmingham, something worse - that they had a hand in killing him because the civil rights movement needed a white martyr.

On one of our first trips to Selma, we were at the Live Oak Cemetery, and at the Confederate Memorial Circle, we met a woman named Pat Godwin. Pat is an active member of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and she is one of the leaders of a group called the Friends of Forrest, which had erected a controversial statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest here in the cemetery. We told Pat we were working on a story about Jim Reeb. She lit up and told us she had something for us and walked us over to her car, where she popped the back and handed over a thick, letter-sized packet of pamphlets.

The packet included some standard issue revisionist Civil War stuff, but most of what Pat gave us had to do with 1965 and its aftermath. And at the bottom of the packet was what she really wanted us to see - a reprint of an old letter to the editor about the murder of Jim Reeb, written just a few weeks after the 1965 trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOL TEPPER: I shouldn't take it so personally. My people were not even living here during the war between the states.

GRACE: That's the voice of Sol Tepper, the man who wrote this letter about the Reeb trial. And in this interview he did with a historian in the 1980s, he's talking about his father, a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary who came to the U.S. soon after the Civil War and eventually settled in Selma. And to hear Selmians talk about the war, Sol's father was convinced the Yankees had lost.

TEPPER: All they could hear is how we whipped the Yankees at this battle and that battle. And so he was convinced the Confederates had won the war. So one day he got in an argument about politics with kinfolks up north, and they told him, we whipped you once; we can do it again. What are you talking about? We won the war. And so it took him about three years to be convinced that Confederate hadn't won the war after that (laughter).

GRACE: Sol's father started Tepper Bros. Mercantile Company, which evolved into Tepper's Department Store, which for years around Christmastime, would turn its top floor into a winter wonderland for the white children of Selma.

Sol was born in 1908, and as the civil rights movement made its way into Selma, he established himself as one of the loudest segregationists in town. He wrote op-eds and letters to the editor about the sins of the movement, the inferiority of black people and the great dangers facing his beloved Selma. He was a member of Sheriff Jim Clark's posse and volunteered to handle all the sheriff's correspondence.

In fact, it was Sol Tepper who wrote that op-ed asking white Selmians to contribute to the legal defense fund for the men arrested for the murder of Jim Reeb, the letter that read, Selma is not fighting for itself alone; it is fighting for everything that stands for decency and Western civilization.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: And now we had in our hands his most enduring letter. Over seven pages, Sol Tepper articulates in excruciatingly granular detail the conspiracy theory outlined by the defense during the trial of the men accused of killing Jim Reeb, the idea that the movement itself had killed Jim Reeb. The letter begins, it is no crime to be uninformed, but it is a grievous fault to stay uninformed when you have the opportunity to look behind the various walls of censorship that the news media have erected around Selma.

GRACE: As a piece of propaganda, this letter is pretty incredible, a classic example of what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics. It's full of half-truths, fearmongering and swagger. But to plenty of people in 1965, the story Tepper told didn't seem paranoid at all, and if you'd been a white Selmian predisposed to believe the defense's argument at trial, you would've wanted to believe anything that would cast aspersions on the movement and its aims. Because at this moment, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and then the Voting Rights Act, everything about your world and your privileged place in it was being turned upside down.

BRANTLEY: And so Pilcher's defense and this letter Sol Tepper wrote - an alternate theory we started calling the counternarrative - it's like it leached into the water here. Tepper took the trial defense that 12 jurors heard to acquit the three defendants, and he transformed it into an elaborate story that could acquit white Selma, too. And that story has survived. We've heard versions of it countless times since we started coming to Selma. And not just from people who hang out at the Confederate cemetery. Four days of trial litigation became the received wisdom for generations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Is this it? This is Gate 1.

BRANTLEY: Oh, there it is. That's the hidey-hole.

GRACE: That's the hidey-hole.

BRANTLEY: Wow. It's like a cottage.

GRACE: Let's see.

One day last spring, we found ourselves south of Selma, near Gate 1 of a decommissioned Air Force base, searching through a cream-colored bunker. It was a small concrete building that hadn't been opened for years, and it was jampacked with all sorts of stuff. We were being chaperone by a friendly, thoughtful guy named Dan (ph), who works at the airfield and whose boss had instructed him to open the place up but to stick around to keep an eye on things.

DAN: This building smells like your grandmom's house.

BRANTLEY: Inside the building, we found a bunch of empty suitcases, a big box of shoes, industrial films about electromagnetic induction, and we found lots and lots of photos from car wrecks and crime scenes.

DAN: See - this was a wreck. Four vehicles.

BRANTLEY: What does that say on there?

DAN: Ten-fifty, which is the call sign for a vehicle collision. Something at Broad Street - four vehicles. Mitchell's (ph) truck.

BRANTLEY: Maybe Jefferson Davis?

DAN: Yep. Jeff Davis at Broad. And there's the date.

BRANTLEY: What's the date on it?

DAN: April 22, 1974. And there's burglary pictures.

GRACE: Cars on fire - this is basically a veritable record of every tragedy that ever happened in Selma for 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: We'd come to this decommissioned Air Force base looking for what Sol Tepper claimed was the source of this counternarrative. In one of the opening paragraphs of Sol Tepper's letter, he assures the reader that his version of events was true because he says, quote, "I am intimately acquainted with the evidence in this case. I received permission and made a tape recording of the entire trial. I have listened to every word of evidence by all the witnesses."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Those four days of the trial were the genesis of this wild story that the movement had killed Jim Reeb. Sol Tepper, the segregationist son of an Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrant, had wanted to absolve and protect white Selma so badly that he had recorded the trial and had written a treatise codifying a myth of what had happened to Jim Reeb. And this conspiracy theory, it had thrived here in Selma. So to solve Jim Reeb's murder and set the historical record straight, we have to once and for all tear apart this counternarrative piece by piece.

DAN: Y’all don’t know how weird of a place y’all are in.

(LAUGHTER)

DAN: But you notice every layer of the onion, there’s something a little wackier than the first layer underneath. And you ain’t - what? - halfway through the onion yet.

BRANTLEY: The counternarrative and the search for Tepper's tapes, next time on WHITE LIES.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK HEART")

THE GREAT BOOK OF JOHN: (Singing) Quit covering your white heart with black suits and fine scars. I know who you are. You been kicking up daisies, throwing high praises. Oh, I know who you are. Give me some of that good old-fashioned peace of mind. Our eyes all stripped away, nothing left to find. You're hurling (ph) mysteries like the stars, but I know who you are. Running your hands through the coal fires, selling false starts and trick cards. Oh, I know who you are. We're going to see what happens. You start running from the fast guns (ph). Oh, I know who you are. Give me some of that good old-fashioned peace of mind. Our eyes all stripped away, nothing left to find. You're hurling mysteries like the stars, but I know who you are.

GRACE: 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.

BRANTLEY: Robert Little edits the show along with N'Jeri Eaton, Keith Woods and Christopher Turpin. Audio engineers include James Willits (ph) and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK HEART")

THE GREAT BOOK OF JOHN: (Singing) The mind of unknowing, gonna give yourself away. (Unintelligible). Come on, give yourself away.

BRANTLEY: Special thanks to The Great Book of John for the use of this song, "Black Heart," courtesy of Communicating Vessels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK HEART")

THE GREAT BOOK OF JOHN: (Singing) Give yourself away. (Unintelligible). Come on, give yourself away. Oooh...

GRACE: Archival tape in this episode comes from Washington University in St. Louis, ABC News, NBC News, Pacifica Radio, WATV Birmingham, eFootage, Katherine Banker (ph) and the University of Michigan Archives and the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Special thanks to Stephen Longenecker (ph), Prince Chestnut (ph), and the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, the National Archives and College Park in Atlanta and the folks at the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Park.

BRANTLEY: Neal Carruth is NPR's general manager for podcasts, and Anya Grundmann is senior vice president for programming. Visit us on the web at npr.org/whitelies.

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