NOEL KING, HOST:
Today, NPR has exclusive reporting that reveals new information in a major civil rights-era murder case. Several white men attacked Reverend James Reeb and two other ministers in Selma, Ala., in March of 1965. Reeb died from his injuries, and three local men were put on trial in December of that year. They were later acquitted.
NPR has unearthed the truth about the attack and learned the identity of a fourth unindicted assailant. He was an enforcer for a violent group led by a man named Elmer Cook.
WILLIAM PORTWOOD: I tried to forget it. I don't even want to talk about it.
CHIP BRANTLEY, BYLINE: You said it scared you just thinking about - thinking about being a part of it was scary...
PORTWOOD: I was a part of it. I was part of it.
KING: That was the voice of the fourth man. And we should give a spoiler alert here for listeners of NPR's investigative podcast White Lies. This story will reveal some of what's in that new episode, which comes out this morning. Graham Smith of NPR's Investigations team has the rest of the story.
GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: The attack on James Reeb shocked a nation already struggling to process the violence they'd seen on the TV news from Selma two days earlier. State troopers beat and tear-gassed black voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister and father of four living in Boston, had flown to Alabama in response to that brutality, one of hundreds answering a call for solidarity from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As twilight settled on Selma, Reeb and his companions, Reverends Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, left a black-owned cafe to head back to a meeting at Brown Chapel AME. Here's Olsen, interviewed days after the attack. He recalls seeing a group of white men moving in their direction.
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CLARK OLSEN: Jim was slightly behind as we were walking, and he did not look around. I did look around in time to see one man with some kind of a stick or a pipe or a club swing the stick violently at Jim Reeb. And it hit Jim on the side of the head, and Jim immediately fell to the pavement on his back.
SMITH: After the initial blow, the other men piled on, kicking and striking the fallen minister and his friends. A crowd gathered and watched. Reeb suffered a severe head injury, and he died two days later. President Johnson cited his death in introducing a voting rights bill. But in Selma, there was only a half-hearted murder prosecution by the local DA, a strident segregationist. No local witnesses testified for the state. An all-white jury delivered acquittals for the three accused - Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle and Namon O'Neal Hoggle, also known as Duck - all now deceased.
NPR's investigation of the case, led by reporters Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, identified a key eyewitness to the assault. Frances Bowden admitted she lied to the FBI and in court in 1965, claiming she had seen the attack but couldn't identify the attackers. She told us the men who'd been put on trial and acquitted were, in fact, guilty. Bowden also confirmed the identity of an unindicted fourth assailant, William Portwood, at the time still living in Selma. She told NPR she knew the men well.
FRANCES BOWDEN: Elmer and Duck and Stanley and Bill - they come by the Silver Moon, and they turn the corner. They come out the door and went 'round the corner behind them.
BRANTLEY: So you saw Stanley Hoggle, Duck Hoggle, Elmer Cook and Bill Portwood come out of the Silver Moon.
BOWDEN: And follow them around the corner and attack them, I sure did.
SMITH: FBI records say they investigated Portwood at the time, but he had an alibi and was never arrested. We found Portwood still living in Selma. He admitted to NPR that he had participated in the attack along with Cook and the Hoggles. Portwood, who said his memory was failing after a series of small strokes, claimed only to have kicked one of the ministers. He also admitted to being the muscle for Cook's group, which had a reputation for violence.
PORTWOOD: I was real, real bad. But I didn't kill. It was mostly just stomping the hell out of somebody that Duck didn't - that they didn't like. I was a bad, bad boy. But I never have been able to get, you know, caught.
SMITH: I never have been able to get caught, he said. According to Alabama law in 1965, anyone who participated in the assault on Reeb could be charged with murder. However, less than two weeks after reporters Brantley and Grace confirmed Portwood's involvement, he died.
Reeb's case is one of three murders connected to the voting rights movement in Selma and the only one without a conviction. Three Klansmen were convicted in 1965 for shooting Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo to death, and a state trooper pleaded guilty in 2010 for the killing of civil rights organizer Jimmie Lee Jackson in nearby Marion.
Graham Smith, NPR News.
KING: James Reeb's murder is the subject of the NPR podcast White Lies.
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