History Stories

When Boston minister James Reeb went to Selma, Alabama in March 1965, his goal was to stand in solidarity with Civil Rights Movement activists who had withstood violence and discrimination in their attempts to ensure voting rights and end Jim Crow segregation. He never got the chance. Hours after his arrival in Selma, the white Unitarian Universalist minister was brutally beaten by a group of men bearing clubs. Two days later, he died. 

James Reeb

Reverend James Reeb.

But though three men were tried for his killing, all three were acquitted, and the murder remains officially unsolved 54 years later.

But it's no longer a cold case. An investigation by NPR journalists has uncovered the identity of a fourth attacker—a figure never put on trial for his involvement in Reeb’s death. The man, Bill Portwood, confirmed his participation in the murder to NPR. 

Although they were known to the community, during the unsuccessful criminal trial Reeb's assailants were protected by fellow segregationists, including an eyewitness who lied on the stand. Portwood's role was not revealed during the trial. 

Reeb had long fought for racial justice. After Bloody Sunday, during which state troopers and others attacked peaceful protesters, he was one of many ministers who traveled to Selma in solidarity with Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of demonstrators. Photos of the violence in Selma, and reports of Reeb's killing, shocked the nation and spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

After the brutal attack, Reeb did not receive medical care in Selma. His companions believed the city’s all-white hospital would refuse to treat him, since he had been part of a Civil Rights demonstration. The local black hospital referred Reeb to a neurosurgeon in Birmingham, 100 miles away. The ambulance that rushed him to Birmingham was delayed by county deputies.

When he died from his injuries on March 11, 1965, Reeb was eulogized by Martin Luther King, Jr. Four days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned him in a speech before he delivered the Voting Rights Act to Congress. But Reeb’s killers went free after an all-white jury acquitted them. Though the FBI reopened the case in 2008, it closed it again due to lapsed statutes of limitation and the death of all previously known involved parties.

Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, both Alabama-based reporters, were able to prove otherwise. Using an unredacted FBI file, they tracked down eyewitnesses like Frances Bowden, who saw the attack and admitted to Brantley and Grace that she had lied under oath at the trial. Bowden told NPR that the three men acquitted in Reeb's murder—Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O'Neal Hoggle—were, in fact, the men who attacked Reeb, and told them of Portwood's involvement.  

Although he was never charged with the crime, Portwood admitted to NPR on tape that he had participated in the attack. He died days after his interview at the age of 86. 

Brantley and Grace tell the story of Reeb’s death in White Lies, an NPR podcast. Though the revelations won’t change the outcome of the murder trial—as all of the participants are now dead—it does reveal the extent to which the white community conspired to shield the killers in an attempt to uphold segregation. 

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