This week, NPR launched White Lies, a seven-part investigation into the 1965 murder of Rev. James Reeb in Selma, Alabama. After three men were tried and acquitted, and the truth about Reeb's fate was hidden by Selma's white community, the case went cold.
NPR partnered up with two local journalists to uncover a web of lies and cover-ups that kept the truth hidden, and the murder from being solved, for decades. Over the course of the show, they interview residents and living witnesses to find out exactly what happened that night: who killed Reeb and what systems allowed the crime to occur. The show is described by NPR as a "story about guilt, memory, and justice that says as much about America today as it does about the past."
N'Jeri Eaton, NPR's deputy director of programming and new audience, and co-hosts Chip and Andrew, told us more about what inspired the project, and why the 50-year-old story is especially relevant today. Listen to the first episode now in Pocket Casts and read on to learn more.
Pocket Casts: Tell us about the origins of the show, and why you're telling the story now
NPR: The hosts/reporters Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace brought the idea of this series to NPR back in 2017. They were able to investigate the civil rights cold case murder of Rev. Jim Reeb because of a unique set of events, including documents that were sent to them. This coincided with the 50th anniversary of Reeb’s murder, creating the right time and circumstances to tell this story.
And while it may seem like a historical show on its surface, the series deals with issues that are still relevant to us today such as voter suppression, racism and polarized communities. White Lies demonstrates that the past can continue to haunt the present, especially when it comes to unresolved trauma.
PC: Who are the hosts and what's their connection to the story?
NPR: Chip Brantley is the author of The Perfect Fruit, and his work has appeared in Slate, the Oxford American, and The New York Times, among others. Andrew Beck Grace is a nonfiction filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and PBS’s Independent Lens. They are also multigenerational, white Alabamians whose ties to the area go back to before it was even a state. Their identity is a big part of the reason why they have been able to get access to telling this story, and they feel it’s their responsibility as white southerners to uncover the truth.
"The story of Jim Reeb's murder occupies a strange place in our country's history. As we reported this story and discovered the lies that had been crafted to hide the truth about his murder, we saw a chance to correct this narrative. And as white southerners, we felt we had a responsibility to do that." -Host Andrew Beck Grace
Who should listen to White Lies?
We hope that the series will appeal to listeners who are drawn in by the true crime genre while also appealing to those who already have an interest in stories about civil rights, social justice and our justice system. White Lies will engage listeners in difficult conversations about race, justice and power structures. It will give the audience deeper context to the tensions that our country still faces when it comes to race.
What will listeners take away from the show?
We hope that listeners will come to understand that our past is really not that far away from us. If we really dissect the past and how things came to be, then we can see that events are really connected to the present.
Why was NPR drawn to this project? What makes it a good fit for your audience?
This is a series that combines investigative journalism and narrative storytelling, two of NPR’s strengths. It’s the kind of impactful journalism that our audience comes to expect from us. And our audience is naturally curious, compassionate and cares about the issues presented in this series so we knew it would make for a good fit.
How is the show relevant to issues we experience today? What learnings can we apply to today's society?
We are still dealing with the lingering and unaddressed issues from the institution of slavery and all of the injustices that has followed in its steps. White Lies draws a connection in a direct way to how unresolved issues in our past are still things that we are dealing with in this country on a daily basis. With this series, we talk about how important and healing discovering the truth and reckoning with it can be to a community.
Is there one particular episode or part of the story you are most anxious to present?
Over the course of the series, there are new developments in each episode that chronicle the truth about what happened to Rev. James Reeb. We are excited that we have gotten closer to the definitive version of what happened to him more than anyone else.