After a multi-year investigation, an NPR team led by Alabama-based journalists Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace has identified a fourth attacker in the infamous death of Unitarian minister and Civil Rights activist James Reeb in 1965.
Following the murder of 26-year-old church Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, some 600 demonstrators planned to march all the way from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery on March 6, in what would become a defining moment of the Civil Rights movement. The demonstrators only made it as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge before state troopers and local lawmen used clubs and tear gas to physically beat them back. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday,” as the event became known, Martin Luther King, Jr., sent out an urgent dispatch to “religious leaders from all over the nation,” calling on them to join with the demonstrators in a second attempt to march to the capitol in Montgomery on March 9.
Boston Unitarian Minister James Reeb was one of more than 2,000 who heeded the call, flying down to Alabama soon after hearing King's request. On the second march, the group crossed the bridge, then kneeled in prayer before state troopers could attack. They proceeded to retreat back across the bridge, in what became known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” The demonstrators were then left to wait on a court ruling that would decide whether they would be allowed to complete their march. While many protestors headed home, Reeb was committed to staying until the full march could take place.
When thousands of people finally began the long walk to Montgomery on March 21, after the intervention of President Lyndon Johnson and with the protection of National Guard Troops, Reeb was not among them.
On the night of March 9, Reeb and two other white ministers, Orloff Miller of Boston and Clark Olsen of Berkeley, California, were attacked by four men outside Walker’s Café, an integrated Selma restaurant. Reeb was beaten and clubbed in the head, dying two days later from his injuries.
Three men, Elmer Cook and brothers William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O'Neal “Duck” Hoggle, were tried for the murder, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury. The case officially remains unsolved.
Brantley and Grace began investigating the case for the podcast White Lies. The reporters tracked down Frances Bowden, an eyewitness to the crime, who worked at a bail bond office on the street where the attack took place. Bowden admitted that she lied to the FBI and on the stand in court when she said she could not identify the men responsible for the attack. Instead, she admitted she could positively ID four assailants.
“[The FBI] asked me if I saw what happened,” she told the reporters. “I told ‘em I saw some people beating a man, but I didn't know who they were and I stuck to that. Of course, we knew who it was; we just didn't admit we knew.”
Bowden confirmed that Cook, and the Hoggles were involved, as well as a fourth man, William Portwood. Portwood was arrested soon after the attack, but his wife gave him an alibi, saying he was at home helping their daughter with her homework when the murder took place. At the time, Portwood refused to give the FBI a statement. Without an eyewitness placing him at the scene, Portwood was released and never tried.
When the reporters confronted Portwood, aged 86, he confirmed that he was involved with the attack, but claimed he only kicked one of the men. He died two weeks after the interview. Audrey Sutherland, the daughter used in the alibi, confirmed that her father was not home the night of the attack, and that he had admitted he was one of the perpetrators.
In 2008, as part of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, the FBI reopened the Reeb case and around 100 other Civil Rights-era cold cases. But that review did not result in any new leads and FBI agents didn’t interview Bowden or Portman for the second investigation.
DeNeen L. Brown at The Washington Post reports that Reeb’s murder did not go unnoticed. Reeb's grieving widow and four children were featured in the news, and prayer vigils for Reeb were held across the country as he lay in the hospital. Instead of dissuading Civil Rights activists from heading to the South, the murder as well as the police attacks at the Pettus Bridge encouraged thousands of people to engage in the fight for Civil Rights.
For The New York Times, Gay Talese described a “new wave” of people joining the Selma protests. “They are conservative in their dress, usually responsible for the action; they are the sort of people who, when a police officer yells ‘Stop!’ are accustomed to stopping,” he wrote. “And yet, in Selma this weekend, they have not been stopping. They have pushed, along with young white and Negro demonstrators, against Wilson Baker’s Selma police force. They have screamed at the police, demanding that they permit the marchers to reach the courthouse.”
Reeb's murder was even referenced by President Johnson in a special message to Congress soon after the Selma marches. “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,” he said, according to the Post’s Brown. “So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man - a man of God - was killed.”
President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August of that year.
According to NPR, the federal statute of limitations on perjury is five years, and three years in Alabama, meaning Bowden cannot be prosecuted for lying. Murder, however, does not have a statute of limitations. If Portwood had lived, it's possible he could have been tried for Reeb's murder, 54 years later.