The 1965 murder in Alabama of minister James Reeb provoked a national outcry and contributed to the passage, a few months later, of the Voting Rights Act. But more than 50 years on, the case remains unsolved.
However, an investigation by NPR has uncovered fresh evidence from the civil-rights era cold case – including the identity of an attacker who says he took part in the beating, but who was never charged.
Reeb, a white Unitarian church minister from Boston, was sevrely beaten along with two other ministers on a street corner in Selma, Alabama, where he travelled in support of black voting rights. Reeb, 38, was taken to hospital after the attack, but died from his injuries two days later.
A few months after Reeb’s death, Lyndon Johnson cited the minister’s name as he introduced the Voting Rights Act, the landmark piece of legislation designed to end discrimination that led to huge increases in the registration of black voters and black elected officials.
Three men were charged over Reeb’s death but were later acquitted by an all-white jury.
Frances Bowden, who claims to have witnessed the murder, told NPR that the three acquitted men – William Stanley Hoggle, Elmer Cook and Namon O’Neal “Duck” Hoggle – carried out the attack. Bowden also said there was a fourth man, William Portwood.
Bowden admitted she lied in court in 1965 when she testified. “I’m not proud of being up in the courtroom telling a lie,” she told NPR’s White Lies podcast. “[Because] I did tell a lie. I said I didn’t know, and I did know.”
She also said she deceived FBI officers. “Of course, we knew who it was. We just didn’t admit we knew.”
Portwood appeared to admit his involvement in Reeb’s death, telling NPR: “I was more than there. All I did was kick one of them.”
However, having had a series of strokes, he said he struggled to recall finer details. He died shortly after the interview.
FBI records seen by NPR showed investigators attempted to question Portwood following the attack, but he would not provide a statement.
The case was reopened in July 2008, but NPR says the FBI file from the investigation revealed agents did not seek interviews with Portwood or Bowden.
The case was among around 100 cases reopened following the passing of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which required the FBI and the Department for Justice to go back to unsolved, racially motivated murders of the civil rights era. So far, it has only led to one federal prosecution.
“We wanted to make sure that every person who committed one of these homicides had been identified and investigated,” Cynthia Deitle, the civil rights unit chief for the FBI from 2008 to 2011.