James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister in Boston, grew outraged as he watched television footage of the brutal “Bloody Sunday” attack. Police on horseback, swinging billy clubs, charged and brutally beat civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. John Lewis, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, suffered a skull fracture. Marchers screamed as the troopers advanced, firing tear gas and wielding bullwhips and tubing wrapped in sharp barbed wire.
Reeb listened as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent out an urgent call for ministers from around the country to travel to Alabama and join the demonstrations for voting rights.
That night, Reeb boarded a plane, heading for Alabama. Two days later, Reeb himself would be dead, viciously beaten by a white mob.
His killing triggered a national uproar over injustice and the denial of civil rights, and it would help bring about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Three white men — Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O’Neal “Duck” Hoggle — were arrested and charged with murder in Reeb’s killing. They were taken into custody by FBI agents on federal charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of Reeb and two other ministers who were attacked alongside him.
“Docket entries for the Dallas County Circuit Court indicated that the murder trial of Elmer Cook, William Hoggle, and Namon Hoggle began on December 7, 1965, and ended three days later with acquittals for all three men on December 10, 1965,” according to an FBI file. “A newspaper article regarding reactions to the judgments of acquittal was critical of the handling of the case by the state prosecutor, Circuit Solicitor Blanch McLeod, and reported that Solicitor McLeod ‘permitted a man whose brother was a suspect in the attack and another man, a well-known racist, to sit as jurors.’ ”
After the acquittal of the men, Reeb’s killing would be considered another civil rights cold case and be filed away in the racist history of the country.
This week, investigative reporters at NPR uncovered new evidence in the case, identifying a fourth attacker who “admitted his involvement” in the attack on Reeb and the two other ministers in Selma. NPR wrote Tuesday that after a four-year investigation, reporters found an eyewitness to the attack.
Frances Bowden told NPR that a fourth man had been involved. Bowden identified that man as William Portwood. In an interview with NPR, Portwood admitted that he had attacked the clergy members in 1965.
According to NPR, Bowden also told NPR that she had lied when testifying about the case in court in 1965.
"I'm not proud of being up in the courtroom telling a lie,” Bowden said. "[Because] I did tell a lie; I said I didn't know and I did know."
She told NPR reporters that she also lied to the FBI. The FBI “asked me if I saw what happened,” she told NPR. “I told 'em I saw some people beating a man, but I didn’t know who they were and I stuck to that,” she said. “Of course, we knew who it was; we just didn’t admit we knew.”
According to the NPR report, under federal law, the federal statute of limitations for perjury and making false statements to the FBI is five years, and three years under Alabama law. Both expired long ago.
Portwood, in an exclusive interview with NPR, admitted that he took part in the attack. “All I did was kick one of them,” Portwood told NPR, according to the report. “When asked about the night Reeb was attacked, he said, ‘I was more than there.’ “ Portwood, who was 86 at the time of the interview, died two weeks later.
The new evidence emerging in the cold case once again turned the spotlight on the brutal attack on clergy members who traveled to Alabama in 1965 to answer King’s call to join the fight for civil rights and voting rights for black Americans.
Bloody Sunday had pricked the conscience of the country. The horrors of the attack on the peaceful demonstrators was captured by national television and newspaper reporters.
A March 8, 1965, New York Times report described the attack as troopers charged the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge: “The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides. Those still on their feet retreated. The troopers continued pushing, using both the force of their bodies and the prodding of their nightsticks.”
King, who only months earlier had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leadership in the civil rights movement, rushed to Selma to organize another march. King decided to defy court orders and march.
“I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience,” King told hundreds of clergymen at Selma’s Brown Chapel AME Church, according to the King Institute.
On March 9, 1965, King led a “symbolic” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Before the marchers reached the other side, they stopped, knelt in prayer, then returned across the bridge.
After the march that would become known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” several clergy decided to return home, according to the King Institute. “Reeb, however, decided to stay in Selma until court permission could be obtained for a full-scale march, planned for the coming Thursday.”
Later that evening, as Reeb and two other white clergymen — Orloff Miller of Boston and Clark Olsen of Berkeley, Calif. — were leaving an integrated restaurant after dinner, a white mob attacked them.
“It was seven-thirty and dark when the three left Walker’s Café and walked up the deserted sidewalk toward the Blue Moon (all-white) Café at the corner,” according to “A Good Man’s Death,” published in 1966, by Jack Mendelsohn. “Almost directly across the street from Walker’s Café was the C. & C. Novelty Company (one of the C’s stands for Elmer Cook, among those soon to be arrested for the assault of the three clergymen).”
Reeb and fellow Unitarian ministers Miller and Olsen walked on the pavement, Mendelsohn wrote. That’s when four white men rushed toward them, shouting racial epithets.
The three ministers began to walk more quickly. “Olsen looked around just in time to see one of the whites swing a three-foot club or pipe at Jim’s head just above the left ear,” according to Mendelsohn.
“It was a two-handed swing in the style of a left-handed batter,” Olsen recalled, “and the man’s face was intense and vicious.”
Mendelson wrote that Olsen and Miller fell to the ground from the blows. “Jim toppled over backward. ... After a few wild kicks at their prone victims, they scattered. There was not a soul on the street.”
Olsen and Miller rose, then tried to get Reeb to his feet. “His eyes were glazed and his speech incoherent,” Mendelsohn wrote. “Jim leaned against the wall for a few minutes and seemed to regain an awareness of what had happened. ‘My head hurts,’ he said, but he insisted that he could walk.”
While Reeb was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham, King addressed reporters, “lamenting the ‘cowardly’ attack and asking all to pray for his protection,” according to the King Institute.
Reeb’s wife, Marie, rushed to Alabama. She appeared pale and shaken as she spoke to reporters about the attack on her husband.
“The mother of four children told newsmen Wednesday after her arrival from Boston that both she and her husband had been aware of the potential danger when he took the trip South,” according to a March 11, 1965, Associated Press report.
She told reporters that Reeb was willing to risk his life for the civil rights cause. “I said I would prefer that he didn’t go,” she said, her lips quivering slightly. “But he felt he had to go.”
Thousands of demonstrators across the country held vigils, praying for Reeb, who lay in the University Hospital in Birmingham in critical condition.
The attack on the clergymen spurred more white people to head to the South and join civil rights protests.
"For the first time in their lives, many white people from the north are now sleeping in Negro homes, are praying in Negro churches, are experiencing a form of integration that they have long endorsed, but never lived — until coming down to Selma,” Gay Talese wrote in the New York Times. “In the process, they have learned much about the Negro. They have learned much more about themselves.”
Talese described the demonstrators as a new wave. They were not young liberals or college students skipping classes. “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,” Talese 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.”
According to a March 11, 1965, Boston Globe report, then-Cardinal Richard Cushing offered prayers for Reeb and called on all Americans “to strive mightily for the prompt achievement of full and equal rights for our citizens.”
Cushing said in a statement that Reeb had been beaten by thugs in Selma because “he dared to stand forth in quiet defense of the right of all Negroes.” Cushing added: “His suffering will not be in vain.”
On Aug. 6, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“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,” Johnson said. “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.”