Alabama professors dig into civil rights slaying for podcast

Two University of Alabama professors — Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley — explore Jim Reeb’s murder, the conspiracies surrounding the case, and the city of Selma itself in an attempt to set straight the historical record.

Posted: May 26, 2019 5:52 PM

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out the call to clergy members to descend on Selma after Bloody Sunday, Jim Reeb knew he had to go, despite his wife’s plea to stay.

He arrived and protesters took to the streets in a short march. Afterward, Reeb went to a restaurant with a couple of other ministers, Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Sam Cooke was playing there, on repeat.

The three left the restaurant, and, as non-natives, weren’t aware of where they were walking. About 7:30 p.m., a white mob attacked them, and Reeb was seriously injured.

“I remember the sound of that club hitting Jim’s head,” Olsen said, years later. “And I remember him crying out when it hit him.”

Two days later, Reeb died.

The minsters’ beatings, and Reeb’s murder, were instant national news.

Reeb became a civil rights martyr, and President Lyndon B. Johnson evoked his death when revealing a draft of the Voting Rights Act in Congress.

Yet for all his notoriety at the time, those put on trial were acquitted, no one was ever punished and Reeb has been largely forgotten.

Now, in the National Public Radio true crime podcast “White Lies,′ two University of Alabama professors — Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley — explore Reeb’s murder, the conspiracies surrounding the case, and the city of Selma itself in an attempt to set straight the historical record.

“I think some people in Selma don’t even know about it,” Grace said. “The violence of what happened and his murder get lumped in with the violence that happened two days earlier at Bloody Sunday.”

About five years ago, the two were looking for a story to tell for the 50-year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, when a reporter they knew in Mississippi mentioned Reeb. Soon after, they were linked up with Olsen in Asheville.

The city of Selma, which has taken on a mystic reverence of the Civil Rights Era, plays a heavy role in the narrative, Grace said. Navigating that complex history wasn’t always easy. Brantley recounted a story about the two of them telling people they were from Birmingham.

“Saying you are from Birmingham in Selma is like saying you are from Chicago,” a resident told them. “Actually saying you are from Chicago would be better.”

Birmingham press and leaders often used Selma to downplay their own racist problems, Brantley said. That guardedness spoke to the duo, who felt it revealed a unique truth about the Yellowhammer State, and the South as a whole.

“For us, it made it Alabamian,” Grace said. “I think there is something about us, native Alabamians, white Alabamians, there is something very defensive about how we are looked at by others outside our region.”

The story got picked up by NPR when the two professors pitched a different project but mentioned Reeb’s story. NPR editors came back, curious about the unsolved murder, and asked them to create a show about it.

Though the two began reporting in 2014, but the bulk of the work came over the last year and half, Grace said.

“You knew right away that there was something worth digging into,” Brantley said.

The two said they sought to further explore Reeb’s individual narrative, which has largely been bunched into an “amorphous blob that people want to forget” when thinking about the violence that happened in Selma.

“If you look at how they play out, and the resonance they have, you can see it is a much more dynamic and nuanced part of our history,” Grace said.

Part of revisiting Reeb’s death, the two said, is a reckoning that there were hundreds of black activists, protesters and regular citizens who suffered similarly but received no national outcry.

In a sad twist of fate, however, the spotlight for Reeb burned bright initially and faded before justice was served in his case, Brantley said.

“His death has been useful in that way. In some kind of cruel way, it did what it needed to do,” he said.

And more than 50 years later, the duo believe they have finished that journey toward clarity.

“To be able to present the facts and have those stand,” Brantley said, will, hopefully, correct the historical record and close a mysterious and conspiratorial case that has laid dormant for years.

___

Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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