A Witness Speaks: Episode 4 NPR White Lies Civil Rights Crime Podcast In Episode 4, we find a woman who says she knows who killed the Rev. James Reeb, because she was there. She's ready — for the first time in more than 50 years — to tell the truth about what she saw.
NPR logo

Listen To Episode 4

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/718690988/729399272" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Sphinx Of Washington Street

Listen To Episode 4

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/718690988/729399272" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

CHIP BRANTLEY, HOST:

Hey, everybody. This is Chip. Thanks so much for listening to WHITE LIES. If you like the show, please rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts. It's really the best way for people to discover the show. Also, be sure to check out our website at npr.org/whitelies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST:

Previously on WHITE LIES...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CLARK OLSEN: I did look around in time to see one man swing this pipe or a club violently at Jim Reeb.

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

COOPER DERAMUS: That's a thing of the past. It's all gone. It'd be better if it's forgot about, and I've had enough.

BILLY BOOZER: I don't think he got killed there on Washington Street or hit enough to get killed. I think they killed the man on the way to Birmingham. I just swore 'cause I always will believe it. Now, whether they did or not, I don't know.

FRANCES BOWDEN: Of course, I was scared s***less because I didn't know whether they were going to get off or not. But I was glad when they did. So even though they were guilty - and I knew they were guilty. And they knew they were guilty

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: From the beginning, we've had one mission with this story - to set the record straight about what happened to Jim Reeb in Selma, to tell the definitive account of the attack on the three ministers outside the Silver Moon that night and to finally solve this murder. In this episode, we're going to tell you about the biggest break in this case - how the search for documents and evidence and photographs and tapes related to the investigation and the trial finally landed us in the smoke-filled office of a witness who saw everything - a witness who has kept what she saw a secret until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: But first, the story of how we landed in that smoke-filled office because for a long time, we didn't think we'd ever be able to tell you about this witness, about what she saw, about who killed Jim Reeb. And that's because it took us almost three years from the first time we met her until she finally agreed to go on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

GRACE: And I'm Andrew Beck Grace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: In 1996, a movie called "Ghosts Of Mississippi" was released in theaters nationwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Bobby DeLaughter) Clara, do we have any files around here on Medgar Evers?

MARGO MARTINDALE: (As Clara Mayfield) Who?

BALDWIN: (As Bobby DeLaughter) Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader that got himself shot in the 1960s.

GRACE: Yes, that's Alec Baldwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI")

BALDWIN: (As Bobby DeLaughter) The six months I've been working this case, a lot of people have told me to give it up as a lost cause. It's 27 years old. Let sleeping dogs lie. But you see, I'm having a hard time doing that because I don't see what difference it makes if a man was bushwhacked yesterday, today or 27 damn years ago. Murder is murder.

GRACE: We are not here to talk about his accent. Baldwin plays an assistant district attorney in Mississippi who's looking into the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Evers was shot in the back in 1963 as he walked to the front door of his house in Jackson. The movie is set in the early '90s and tells the story of how the case came to be reopened and the subsequent trial that sent an aging Klansman to prison. It's a true story, at least kind of in the way that Hollywood tells true stories. And it features this character Jerry Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI")

BALDWIN: (As Bobby DeLaughter) ...But I'm afraid you'd tell me.

JERRY LEVINE: (As Jerry Mitchell) Well, you're what's new. My readers are on the edge of their collective seat. Will Mr. DeLaughter, or will he not, go after Byron De La Beckwith?

GRACE: Jerry Mitchell is a real person. He runs the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. But what the movie doesn't fully acknowledge is that it was Jerry, in his early 30s at the time, working for the local Jackson paper, who did the investigative work that led to the reopening of the case.

And he didn't stop there. Very quickly, Jerry established himself as one of the preeminent investigative reporters in the South. And he focused a lot of his attention on these unsolved civil rights cases. His reporting was instrumental in the reopening of a number of high-profile cases - the murder of the three civil rights workers outside Philadelphia, Miss., the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and others. And many of these stories eventually led to convictions.

JERRY MITCHELL: There are so many of these cases - civil rights cold cases. There are probably hundreds if we knew every one of them. And to be honest, we don't know all of them.

GRACE: That's Jerry - not the movie version, but the real one - at his house in Jackson. Jerry is a pretty legendary reporter. For his dogged pursuit of cases like these, a decade ago, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, known colloquially as a genius grant.

MITCHELL: I tend to think of cases in terms of solving. If you're talking about actually solving and bringing to trial - OK, well, which ones are viable or possibly viable? You know, the killing of James Reeb has always been one of those cases - you had witnesses.

BRANTLEY: Many years ago, Jerry got his hands on the file from the FBI's investigation into the attack on Jim Reeb, which he very generously shared with us. The file was completely unredacted, which is almost unheard of. And this FBI file provided the names of witnesses, their varying accounts of the night of the attack, the inconsistencies in their stories.

MITCHELL: It's easier to deal with a case that's already really been investigated. You want an investigation whether there's an actual transcript or not, whether you've got FBI documents or police documents or highway patrol documents, whatever you've got. If you don't have that to start with, you're not going to know who the main witnesses are. And so the James Reeb case was, obviously, one of those cases, I felt like, that was potentially viable if there were some way to get around the acquittals. And that was the problem. You'd have double jeopardy.

BRANTLEY: Quick legal refresher - double jeopardy is the constitutional protection against being tried twice for the same crime. So the three men who were acquitted for Reeb's murder in 1965, they could not be tried again for the same crime no matter what new evidence might surface.

MITCHELL: And so all these things, kind of, were interesting to me. Plus, like I said, the fact that you had these guys absolutely dead to rights. They had witnesses. This wasn't something that happened without people seeing it.

BRANTLEY: Jerry is unimposing, low-key. He's redheaded, wears a trimmed beard. He favors blue dress shirts and is almost always wearing an unremarkable tie. He's the kind of person who can become almost invisible, at least in the right environment. Like us, Jerry is a white guy. And he spent most of his life in the South.

MITCHELL: Most of us, I guess, who've kind of been engaged in this are like me - kind of middle-aged, Southern white guys. So I can go talk to Klan guys. I've got the right accent and, you know - and I've got the same kind of upbringing in terms of the South and things like that. I mean, you have to be able to sit down with some - I hate to say it - but you have be able to sit down with racists and, you know, just kind of sit and have lunch or whatever it is, you know, and talk to them. I've done this with a number of - and I've sat down with Byron De La Beckwith for six hours, the guy who killed Medgar Evers. You know, I sat down with Bobby Cherry, the guy who supposedly planted the bomb to kill the four little girls. So you just - that's what you do. You have to do that.

GRACE: Jerry's approach has been to go straight to the source, to call up or visit the men believed to have committed these atrocities of the '60s. And his success in bringing renewed attention to these old cases is almost always connected to what these men are willing to say to him, to what information one white man can extract from another over an all-you-can-eat catfish dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The three men who were tried for the murder of Jim Reeb in 1965 were Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle and Namon O'Neal Hoggle, whom everyone called Duck. Elmer died in 1972. Stanley died in 1996. But Duck Hoggle? When we first started reporting this story, Duck was running a sprawling used-car lot in downtown Selma. Yes, it's true that Duck Hoggle, like his brother Stanley and their friend Elmer Cook, was acquitted by a jury of his peers in 1965. But everything we'd learned so far suggested that the trial was an utter miscarriage of justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Combing through the FBI file, we learned that several people placed Duck right there on Washington Street when the attack happened. Even Duck's brother Stanley, in his statement to the FBI, places them on Washington Street during the time of the attack - not just on Washington Street but right where the attack happened.

Remember; the attack happened in front of this place called the Silver Moon Cafe. One man told the FBI he was drinking a beer in the Silver Moon sometime after 7 p.m. when he heard a commotion outside. A couple of minutes later, he saw Elmer walk into the cafe with Stanley and Duck. Stanley was laughing. And Duck was telling a town drunk that if he didn't keep his mouth shut, he'd beat the hell out of him. Another man drinking beer in the Silver Moon that night told the FBI he overheard Elmer and the Hoggle brothers talking about some brass knuckles and a billy stick they had.

Double jeopardy would prevent trying Duck Hoggle again. But no matter what we might find, he was clearly the most important person alive who could help shed light on what really happened. So Duck Hoggle - even though he'd refused every interview request since his acquittal, we went looking for Duck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Andy lives an hour and a half to the northwest of Selma, and I'm two hours to the northeast. Usually we meet halfway for breakfast at a place called the Sawmeal. Then we carpool down Highway 82, take a right at Maplesville onto Highway 22, which takes us through Plantersville and past Paul Grist State Park, where my dad went to summer camp for the 1950s. Finally, just before Selma, we hit Valley Grande.

Valley Grande is where all the white people circled the wagons when they left Selma. Or rather, it's where a lot of the white people moved when they left Selma. And that's where we went looking for Duck Hoggle, who lived about a mile off the highway at the end of a dead-end road surrounded by fields and thicket.

Well, here's a house with a Confederate flag out front, two pick-up trucks...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: There were several houses scattered across a large grassy field, plus garages and sheds here and there. Just where Duck's driveway hit the property, there was a large keep out; trespassers will be violated sign, which cautioned that the whole area was under video surveillance. So we decided to drive on to Selma to try our luck at Duck Hoggle's used-car business. It's called Bama Motors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: In 2009, the street Bama Motors is on was renamed J.L. Chestnut Jr. Boulevard, in honor of the city's first - and for a long time, only - black attorney. But until 2009, the street was named Jefferson Davis Avenue after the president of the Confederacy. And a lot of people in Selma, white and black, still call it Jeff Davis.

BRANTLEY: I showed up at Bama Motors one afternoon and asked if Duck was around. A woman told me to check if his white GMC Sierra was still parked out front, and if so, he'd be in his office. It was, so I walked over and knocked on the office door, and an old guy in a nylon flight jacket stepped out.

Duck? He nodded. I introduced myself, told him I was working on a story about Selma in 1965, the murder of Jim Reeb, that I wanted to talk to him about it. I offered him a card as I spoke, but he refused to take it. He just said, I'm not interested, and then turned to go back inside. I understand, I said, still holding out my card. But he wouldn't take it. He just pulled the door shut. And that was it - no catfish dinner, no tell-all, no nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: We tried every angle with Duck. We called his friends, his family, even wrote him a letter. But he never wrote back. He never talked publicly about the case, which of course he didn't. Duck beat the case. And what good could come if he talked? Maybe there could've been a federal charge or a civil case. And anyway, for 50 years, he'd been able to build a business in Selma, to raise a family, go wherever he pleased in his white GMC Sierra. Maybe he'd managed to put it out of his mind, believing, like so many others in this town, that the past is past, water under the bridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOANNE BLAND: Yeah, that's Bama Motors. Want to go that way? Let's go that way.

BRANTLEY: That's Joanne Bland, who you heard from in the first episode. One day when we were with her, we just happened to be driving near Bama Motors, and the place looked deserted.

GRACE: Is it closing up now?

BLAND: No, child. It's almost income tax time. It's one of those places all you need is a check stub. And soon, these lots will be so filled with raggedy-a** cars. That's the part that I hate - is that he made a whole living off of poor people, the same people who Reeb was here to help. And then people still go to him and buy cars from him.

BRANTLEY: Jerry Mitchell had told us that if we struck out going right to the source, we should try to work the edges - that if we could find people on the fringes of the story, they could help lead us back to the center. So on this day, we were going with Joanne to see her brother Al because Joanne had told us Al knows everybody in town, and maybe he could help us find some people on the edges of the story.

BLAND: Where you want to meet?

AL BLACKMON: Y'all meet me in the little house in the backyard.

BLAND: OK. Be there...

BLACKMON: I'll be there in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The FBI file on the assault includes interviews with scores of people about the night of the attack. Almost everyone on the street that night says they didn't see anything. The file is littered with notes about witnesses' hesitancy or flat-out refusal to participate. One man told agents that he had no sympathy for the ministers, that they got what they deserved. Another man was so incensed that he actually came over and interrupted a coworker's interview to tell the agents, quote, "God made two races and did not intend for them to mix." He then proceeded to rant about outsiders coming into Selma trying to tell them how to run things. It's at that point, the agent writes, that they terminated the interview.

Jerry had had the FBI file for years and had made notes throughout about the lingering suspicion that there was another man - a fourth man - who'd been involved in the attack that night. Again, Jerry was thinking like a prosecutor. Since double jeopardy protected the other defendants, if you could find a fourth attacker, well, that person could still be put on trial. And that idea that there were more than three attackers that night squared with nearly all the initial reports about the attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLSEN: We turned to the right coming out of the restaurant...

GRACE: This is Clark two days after the attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLSEN: ...And went down toward the intersection. We saw a group of four or five men.

GRACE: And this is Orloff's memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ORLOFF MILLER: And as we started walking from across the street, there appeared four or five white men.

GRACE: Even the very first news accounts from the night say there were four or five attackers. And in Jerry's reading of the FBI file, he suspected R.B. Kelley, the man initially charged with the three defendants the day after the attack. Kelley had been at the Silver Moon Cafe that night and was friendly with Elmer Cook and the Hoggle brothers. But reading through the hundreds of pages of memos we got from the Department of Justice, it seemed that rather than being one of the attackers, Kelley was instead one of the only witnesses who was willing to tell the cops what had really happened. But at trial, Kelley, the star witness - he pleads the Fifth on the advice of his lawyer. And anyway, R.B. Kelley died in 1994.

BLAND: Every time I come out here - I've been out here a million times.

BRANTLEY: We going right or left?

BLAND: We're going to make a right - not here. It's there.

BRANTLEY: This one?

Joanne's brother Al lives in a nice red brick house with white columns in the front. But we drive to the back, where there's a little outbuilding, a kind of shed with a red metal roof that Al calls the little house.

BLACKMON: Al Blackmon, how you doing?

GRACE: Hey, I'm Andy Grace. This is a nice little compound you got back here.

BLACKMON: It is, ain't it?

GRACE: Yeah.

BLACKMON: Y'all come on in. It ain't cleaned up, but it's here. Have a seat.

BRANTLEY: There are tables and chairs, a bar on one side and a refrigerator stocked with Bud Light on the other. Al and his friends, many of them local politicians and business leaders, hold legendary barbeques out here. Al is kind of a political kingmaker in Selma.

BLACKMON: If you want to get elected to state-wide or city-wide or county-wide office, you got to come back here and sit down and drink whiskey with everybody.

GRACE: This is the place, huh?

BLACKMON: This the hole, man. I know a lot of people. A lot of people will follow me. If I say, let's do, they - OK. As my wife likes to say, nobody wants to go against me 'cause I'll blackball them. Black, white, blue or green, I'll blackball you. So...

BLAND: And don't mind telling it.

BLACKMON: Don't mind...

GRACE: So Selma - I mean, Selma - how does politics work in Selma?

BLACKMON: It's not what you know. It's who you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BLACKMON: Everybody want to talk to the little fat boy. Hello? Look here, I'm doing an interview. I'm famous, boy. I'll call you back. Hell, yeah. I got two white folks and my sister Annie in here. All right.

OK, go ahead. Keep going.

GRACE: Joanne and Al's father drove a taxi in Selma for years. Joanne says that in a place like Selma, the taxi drivers knew everyone's name, knew all the gossip. Her father was trusted to take someone's children from one side of the city to the other.

And then Al followed in his footsteps. Now he runs a transportation company that operates throughout the surrounding area. And he does seem to remember nearly all the people we've come to ask him about. But unsurprisingly, more than 50 years removed from the night of the attack, nearly everyone is dead.

I mean, just thinking more generally about people who would've been on Washington Street in the mid-'60s who are still alive, who...

BLACKMON: Not many, if you can name any. All the business owners down there - all them gone. That was old man Eddie Ferguson, old man Marshall and his shoe shop. Let's see, the barber shop - OK, Sanitary Barber Shop - all of them gone.

BLAND: Who owned Liston Clay?

BLACKMON: Wranch Pettaway. He dead and gone. Sam Washington, the tailor - he dead and gone. Floyd Tolbert that had that barber shop there - he dead and gone. That's the whole block where they hung out on Washington Street. Throw another name at me.

GRACE: I just - just another name hit me 'cause it's one of my favorite names from this whole story, and that's this man General MacArthur Brown. Do you know that name?

BLACKMON: Talking about old - OK, Mac Brown.

GRACE: Maybe it was just Mac Brown. I mean, this...

And it went on like this, these strikeouts. And it wasn't that surprising. Ever since we first got the FBI file, we'd identified alleged witnesses to the attack. And only a handful who really might have actually seen something were still living.

BRANTLEY: What about a white guy named Bradley Capps?

BLACKMON: Yeah, he's still here. He had a bail bonding company. And now you have to have license, and then - back then, if you wanted to get out of jail, you just called Mr. Capps. He'd bond you out.

GRACE: In 1965, Bradley Capps ran a service station in Selma. He knew Elmer Cook and the Hoggle brothers, but he told the FBI he had no firsthand knowledge of the attack. The agents believed Capps had talked to someone who had witnessed the attack, but he didn't want to tell the FBI agents who this person was. They told him that he might be subpoenaed and required to testify. But Capps said that if he was subpoenaed, he would refuse to testify.

Now, at 91 years old, he split his time between Selma and the Gulf Coast. Could we invite Bradley Capps to an all-you-can-eat catfish dinner and have him tell us all he knows?

BLACKMON: You know, a lot of things they knew back in those days could come back to haunt them. Statute of limitations on murder never runs out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How you doing, sir?

BRANTLEY: Hey, how you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: My brother's going to be here...

BRANTLEY: I met Bradley Capps one rainy night at a rundown rental house he and his daughter were renovating north of Selma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's a mess. Come on.

BRANTLEY: Well, I understand. Thanks for letting me pop in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. I'll get somewhere - you sit down. I'll get a bucket or something, OK? My daddy can't walk too good.

BRANTLEY: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sit down.

BRANTLEY: Hey, how you doing?

BRADLEY CAPPS: All right.

BRANTLEY: It's good to meet you.

CAPPS: Good to meet you, sir.

BRANTLEY: Thanks for seeing me.

The house was empty, so I sat on a shop bucket. Capps was wearing bright yellow socks and chewing on an unlit cigar. He reminded me of a stockier George Burns. He had two Chihuahua-terrier mixes scuttling around at his feet, and his daughter was in the back working on the house.

And I remember it said you had an auto service. Do you remember when the FBI came and talked to you?

CAPPS: S***, they come talk to me three different times - scared the s*** out of me. But I wasn't tied in with them, see? And I didn't tell him them nothing that they didn't already know, really, 'cause, well, the whole damn town knew. They was tough.

BRANTLEY: The whole damn town knew that Elmer and the Hoggles had done it.

CAPPS: Yes, sir. Yeah, they knew them very well. They were some of the outlaws we had - them Hoggles and Cook. That Elmer - he'd tell a man he's going to whoop his a** and go whoop it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BRANTLEY: Pretty soon, it got too loud in the house, so we moved out into the cab of Capp's pickup truck.

CAPPS: Shut up, dog.

BRANTLEY: So what do you remember about hearing about Elmer Cook and the Hoggle brothers attacking those guys on Washington Street?

CAPPS: Oh, it was a darn thing - seemed like one of them hit them with a club or something - hit one of them.

BRANTLEY: That's right.

CAPPS: They whooped their a** on the streets. But we didn't go up there and try to get in it 'cause the feds had already talked to me and some of the other boys, too. We don't get tied into that s***.

BRANTLEY: Yeah, so there were FBI agents. And they came to talk to you a couple of weeks after this because somehow, they got wind that you may have known somebody who'd seen it, and you didn't tell them.

CAPPS: Hell no. I didn't talk to them like I'm talking to you 'cause I don't trust son of b****, and you see why I don't now. See, half of them are goddamn crooks, just like them son of a b****es trying to ruin Trump now. That makes me sick.

BRANTLEY: What's that?

CAPPS: The way they treating Trump, the president.

BRANTLEY: You mean just the FBI stuff?

CAPPS: The Democrats - the way the Democrats are treating the Trump organization. I think he's doing a good job, but a lot of people disagree with me. You might disagree with me, but that's your business.

BRANTLEY: Well, in this case, they came to talk to you. And you said, no, I'm not going to tell you. And then - and you said that - the reason you said was because you didn't have firsthand knowledge of it, that it was secondhand knowledge, and you didn't - therefore you didn't want to tell them.

CAPPS: Most of it was. Of course, I knew everybody just about that was in it. But everybody in town knew it. I mean, hell, that would be the talk. I ain't tell them son of a b****es nothing. You see what bastards they were, don't you?

GRACE: So Bradley Capps said the whole damn town knew. This squared with what the juror Billy Boozer and other people had told us, that it was widely known throughout Selma that Elmer Cook and the Hoggles attacked the ministers. Capps' account had gotten us closer to the center. But it was still secondhand, hearsay. Had anybody in the whole damn town actually seen what had happened on Washington Street? That's after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: In our search for witnesses, two contenders were the waitresses at the Silver Moon Cafe that night. One of them had long ago denied us. You heard that in an earlier episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL)

OUIDA MARKHAM: Yeah, this is Ouida Markham. I understand you wanted to talk to me about whatever it is. Leave me out of it.

BRANTLEY: We kept trying Ouida, her sister, her brother, her son, neighbors where she used to live, even her elderly mother. Sorry, Mrs. Larson. But Ouida just won't talk to us.

The other Silver Moon waitress was Helen Beverly Martin. In March 1965, she'd only lived in Selma for six weeks. On the night of the attack, she was waiting tables at the Silver Moon. But by the time she was interviewed by the FBI nine days later, she had quit. She told the FBI she knew Elmer Cook and the Hoggles but knew nothing about the attack. But soon after the attack, a rumor started around Washington Street that she was the one who told police she saw the three men attack the ministers. Two days after the attack, she received a phone call at the Silver Moon, and three unidentified women on the other end told her they were coming down to the Silver Moon when she got off and that she'd be dead by the next morning. That probably explains why she quit.

But after that interview with the FBI, that's it - no other trace of her. Almost no one we've spoken to in Selma recalls a Helen Beverly Martin. And the property owner of the address where she rented an apartment has no records going back that far, does not remember her. And to complicate finding her, she was 21 in 1965. Was Martin her maiden name, her married name? There are thousands of Helen Martins in the United States, and we've spent days looking for ours. So to the Helen Beverly Martin in her late 70s who worked briefly as a waitress in Selma in 1965, if you hear this, please give us a call.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: But before all that - before Bradley Capps, before Helen Beverly Martin, before we worked the edges, we went right to where the attack had happened. Early in our reporting, we were getting the lay of the land, figuring out where Jim Reeb, Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller had been during their brief time in the city. We went to Washington Street. We stood in front of Walker's Cafe. The building was still there, but it was vacant. So we stood at the threshold, and we thought about that decision to turn left or right. And then we followed in their footsteps and turned right.

Up the block is a mostly empty lot. That's where the Silver Moon once stood. And in the middle is a marker to Jim Reeb, saying he was attacked right here on this spot. And at the corner is a small, squat one-story red brick building with Selma Bail Bond painted on the brick above the metal awnings. So we decided to go in and ask about the Reeb marker to see if someone there knew anything about it. Maybe they'd know about the building that was here before, the Silver Moon Cafe. Or maybe they'd give us the name of someone we could talk to.

But what happened as a result of that decision to walk into the bail bonds office that day is the whole reason we're able to tell you this story - because the woman inside, the owner of Selma Bail Bond, she took a drag on her Winston Light 100 and told us that she knew exactly what had happened to James Reeb. She told us that she knew what happened to him not because she'd read some old letter, not because someone told her something, not because she had inherited a story that had been passed around for decades. No, she knew what happened because she had been there that night and had witnessed the whole thing.

It seemed too surreal to be true - a woman who'd seen everything was sitting feet from where the attack had happened and had been sitting here on this block for over 50 years. We called our producer to double-check the FBI file. And there she was on page 179, telling an agent that she knew Cook and the Hoggles, that she served them coffee every morning but that she had no personal knowledge of the assault on the white ministers.

But that wasn't true. At first, she told us she saw the attack, but she wouldn't tell us who did it. But we kept coming back. And with each visit, she would tell us a little more about what she knew. We began thinking of her as the Sphinx of Washington Street, some kind of all-knowing keeper of the history of this block; smoking her Winstons, unmoving, just steps from where the attack took place. And even as we learn more about what she knew, she refused to say any of it on the record because of her friend Duck Hoggle. She was worried about what might happen to him if she talked to a couple of journalists. And as we spent the next few years reporting this story, we would visit her whenever we were in town, trying to convince her to reconsider. No, she would tell us, not while Duck is alive.

But then Duck Hoggle died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, the last of three men tried and acquitted in an infamous civil rights slaying in Alabama has died. The obituary says Namon O'Neal Hoggle of Selma died on Tuesday at the age of 81 years old. Hoggle was among...

GRACE: The eyewitness, the Sphinx of Washington Street - it's finally time you hear from her.

Yeah.

BRANTLEY: OK.

BOWDEN: Now, y'all going to ask me questions, or what you going to do?

GRACE: Yeah, we'd would love to - I mean, you say, are we going to ask you questions, and we will ask you questions, but we'd love to just chat.

BRANTLEY: This is Frances Bowden. For more than a quarter century, she's been a bail-bondswoman in Selma, the only bail-bondswoman in Selma. She wears heels to work every day and keeps a snub-nosed revolver in the top drawer of her desk, between the paper clip tray and the red scissors. Before she was a bail-bondswoman, she worked in pawn shops and restaurants, most of them right here on Washington Street. And on the night of March 9, 1965, she'd gone to see her boyfriend at a place called City Pawn, which was right across the street from the Silver Moon Cafe.

BOWDEN: Well, what really drawed (ph) our attention to it was people running this way, people on the street, right? So we come to the big glass-plate window and looked out and saw them fighting, or saw them hit the man, anyway. Now, Elmer had the billy stick, but he was a short, fat fella. So he passed it to Stanley. So Stanley done some hitting with it. Then when the man was down, the rest of them started kicking. They got tired of kicking. Then they come back in the cafe. Well, they brought the billy stick with them.

BRANTLEY: Came right back in the Silver Moon.

BOWDEN: Right back into Silver Moon, sure did.

BRANTLEY: And so where are you standing when you're seeing all this?

BOWDEN: In the window right here at the Selma Pawn Shop, or City Pawn Shop, right on the corner, right over there.

BRANTLEY: Just looking right over here.

BOWDEN: Looking right at it.

BRANTLEY: Frances said that as soon as the attack was over, everyone on the street who witnessed it scattered - scattered like a covey of quails, is actually how she put it. Later, she and her boyfriend met up with Elmer Cook and Hoggles at a late-night spot across the river called the Bamboo Club.

BOWDEN: But they went in a club that night after the beating of Mr. Reeb. And so Elmer asked him, Stanley, did you get rid of that club? And he said, no, it's in my truck. You stupid son of a bitch; I told you to burn it. So they had to get in the truck, then, and go burn it. So they went to Sand Hill and burned the stick.

BRANTLEY: Just out in a field somewhere?

BOWDEN: Sand Hill's out here on Kings Bend Road; wasn't nothing but just sand piles. So they went out there and built a fire and burned the stick.

BRANTLEY: That night?

BOWDEN: Yeah.

GRACE: And so how did you know that? Did you - do you hear them talk about all this?

BOWDEN: Yeah, I was there when they were talking about it. I was there. I didn't only stand over here and watch it. I got with them that night after we closed.

BRANTLEY: With Duck and Stanley and Elmer, did y'all talk about what happened that night after that night? Conversation?

BOWDEN: No. Not after the man died; they didn't talk about it. They was nervous, worried, scared. I know they were. I mean, I could tell that.

BRANTLEY: How could you tell?

BOWDEN: Just from the way they acted. They just couldn't sit still.

BRANTLEY: The guy Frances was dating was friends with Elmer and the Hoggles, and so Frances spent a lot of time with these men.

I mean, you'd known some of them for a long time.

BOWDEN: Well, Elmer was the gang leader. Whatever Elmer wanted to do, the rest of them done. He was mean as a snake, don't get me wrong. He was mean as a snake, and he'd...

BRANTLEY: What kind of stuff would he do?

BOWDEN: ...Shoot your ass in a minute. So (laughter) - but Elmer was always the leader of the gang. So Stanley and Duck done what Elmer wanted to do. Elmer said what you're going to do. If Elmer said, we're going to Florida this weekend, going to be gone three days, then you went to Florida this week, and you was gone three days. So that's the way it was.

GRACE: And so what were the Hoggle brothers like? Because they - you say they hung around with him, but they didn't work for Elmer, so.

BOWDEN: Honey - now, Duck was a good fella; he really was. Now, he was mean as a snake; he was mean. But Stanley was a crooked little bastard. He'd do anything to anybody - didn't make no difference what it was; he'd do it. Sure would.

GRACE: So do you remember - because you were interviewed. We've read your interview with the FBI. Do you remember that, those agents coming to you? Do you remember anything about...

BOWDEN: Oh, yeah, I remember.

GRACE: Can you tell us that story?

BOWDEN: Oouu (ph). Well, sweetheart, they told me anytime you talked to the FBI agent, when he asked you a question, give him a single-word answer if you can; don't elaborate on anything, and don't volunteer anything.

BRANTLEY: And who told you this?

BOWDEN: Everybody. Sheriff, for one person (laughter).

BRANTLEY: Sheriff Clark?

BOWDEN: Yeah.

GRACE: In case you couldn't hear that part clearly, Frances is saying that Sheriff Jim Clark, the head of law enforcement in Dallas County, coached her on how to answer questions from the FBI.

So the FBI came - do you remember where they interviewed you?

BOWDEN: I think in my office at the pawn shop, I think. I think that's where they came. But they asked me if I saw what happened. I told them I saw some people beating a man, but I didn't know who they were, and I stuck to that. Because we knew who it was; we just didn't admit we knew.

BRANTLEY: So all these people knew who it was who had done it. They just...

BOWDEN: Oh, yes, honey. Everybody - everybody knew who it was, but nobody knew a damn thing, sure didn't.

BRANTLEY: It's kind of amazing that people were able to keep it under wraps.

BOWDEN: Well, they covered it up, is what they done. And...

BRANTLEY: Who organized that?

BOWDEN: I don't know. You just don't say nothing unless you're going to back it up. So - but I knew not to say nothing. I'd have put friends in trouble.

BRANTLEY: Right, it was just...

BOWDEN: And you couldn't do that.

BRANTLEY: Just a code everybody kind of stuck to because they didn't...

BOWDEN: Yeah, you didn't know. You didn't rat your friends out. They don't rat friends out now, as you well know; they still don't.

GRACE: So the FBI comes here, and you tell them what you tell them partly because Sheriff Clark and others have told you how to talk to the FBI. But then what do you remember about the trial? Because you did testify at trial, too.

BOWDEN: Yes, I did. They asked me questions about what I saw, and I told them. But I answered truthfully except for telling them who it was; I did not name no names, did not. And of course, the jury - hell, they knew the jury; that was like their hip-pocket mate. So they knew they wasn't going nowhere.

BRANTLEY: In their hip pocket - what do you mean by that?

BOWDEN: They was all friends, every one of them were. They knew them all.

GRACE: You think the judge allowed that to happen?

BOWDEN: Well, they should have took their case out of Dallas County because they were too connected with what was going to be on the jury. I don't give a damn who you'd have put up there; they was acquainted with them, you know, one or the other of them were. Because Elmer loaned money and run a novelty shop, and the other two had car lots. So everybody knew them, and they wasn't fixing to convict Mr. Duck or Mr. Stanley. You know, they helped me with my car; they give me a discount on my car. So they wasn't fixing to convict him, wasn't no way, so.

Of course, I was scared s***less because I didn't know whether they were going to get off or not. But I was glad when they did, so - even though they were guilty, and I knew they were guilty, and they knew they were guilty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: After the verdict, do you remember that, what happened when the trial was over and they were acquitted?

BOWDEN: Oh, they was tickled to death. I mean, it was celebration time because they were found not guilty. So they were really lucky. But everybody lied, so that's how they got to be lucky. Because everybody knows that they done it, but they just wouldn't admit they done it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: We now had an eyewitness. After 50 years of lies and silence, Frances was finally coming clean about what she saw that night. The Selma police department had arrested the right people in 1965; the trial had been a miscarriage of justice. A clearer image of what happened that night was coming into focus, but the full truth was still ahead of us.

BRANTLEY: Because there was one other thing that Frances didn't want to talk about on the record, and it was something that she had first suggested a long time ago. That picture we had in our heads of those three attackers on the street that night, that was incomplete. Turns out, there was a fourth man. And while Frances would not tell us his name, she did tell us something else about him - he was still alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: That's next time on WHITE LIES.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUTIONARY TALE")

DYLAN LEBLANC: (Singing) I feel I’m flying blind when I know that my mind won’t relieve me. Not much to be said when my heart and my head still deceive me. Don’t offer up help that you know that I won’t be needing. Because I do it to myself like I never get tired of bleeding. Can I trust you now not to pull me out of this cautionary tale that you know that I won't be reading?

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 Jay Ciz (ph), James Willits (ph) and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd. Special thanks to Dylan LeBlanc for the use of this song, "Cautionary Tale," courtesy of Single Lock Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUTIONARY TALE")

LEBLANC: (Singing) ...I guess always, if I can make it outside of these narrow-minded hallways. Can I trust you now not to pull me out of this cautionary tale that you know that I won't be reading - cautionary tale that you know that I won't be reading?

GRACE: Archival tape in this episode comes from Washington University in St. Louis, NBC News, WATV Birmingham and WEAC-TV24. Special thanks as well to Marika Olsen (ph). Neal Carruth is NPR's general manager for podcasts, and Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president for programming. Visit us on the web at npr.org/whitelies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUTIONARY TALE")

LEBLANC: (Singing) Cautionary tale that you know that I won't be reading. Cautionary tale that you know that I won't be reading. Cautionary tale, to my own avail, I believe in. Cautionary tale that you know that I won't be reading.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.