(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM REEB: If you came this morning hoping to hear a message of hope, in many ways I will have to discourage you.
CHIP BRANTLEY, HOST:
It's July 1964. This recording is from the All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. This is Jim Reeb delivering his final sermon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REEB: There were many people who seemed to feel that once we'd had the march on Washington and once we had the civil rights bill, things were just inevitably going to be easier, that somehow we'd done it. And I can say to you only that I think that this is the most dangerous kind of self-delusion, that we have not in any way done it. And that just to the extent that we think we have, we're going to be dismayed when we find out that we have not.
And just to the extent that we permit ourselves to be emotionally dismayed, we ourselves as individuals will in some small way add to this thing that is known as the backlash, which is real and, I feel, in many ways growing, and in many ways possibly stronger than we surmise as yet.
BRANTLEY: Eight months after he delivered this sermon, Jim Reeb went to Selma, Ala., to show support for the voting rights campaign there. Less than 24 hours later, he was attacked on the corner of Washington Street by a group of men he'd never met before. Reeb died two days later in a Birmingham hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF AROMA'S "ZORBA'S DANCE (SIRTAKI)"
BRANTLEY: We focused all this time on trying to figure out what happened on the street corner that night, to understand this brief moment of violence and what came after. And we did that. We tracked down witnesses. We identified the attackers. We untangled the history from the mythology to get the true story of what happened to Jim Reeb.
ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST:
But there is no justice here at the end of our story, at least not in the way we're taught to think about justice - no redemption. And as Jim Reeb said in his sermon, it would be a dangerous kind of self-delusion to think otherwise. So the question is, once you've called a lie a lie, what does it mean to live with the truth?
(SOUNDBITE OF AROMA'S "ZORBA'S DANCE (SIRTAKI)"
GRACE: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I'm Andrew Beck Grace.
BRANTLEY: And I'm Chip Brantley.
(SOUNDBITE OF AROMA'S "ZORBA'S DANCE (SIRTAKI)"
RON ENGEL: Jim, I'll just say right off, would not have wanted to be remembered as a martyr. As profound and as moving and as important as the story of his death was, Jim was being lost.
BRANTLEY: This is Ron Engel. He and Jim worked together at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s. And in the last years of Jim's life, Ron was among his closest friends.
GRACE: I think it's so interesting, and it's something we've thought a lot about, this idea that Jim is not a real person for many Americans who know his story. He's simply a person who fulfilled a calling, whose death is so much more important and memorable than his life. I'm not saying that's what I think. I'm saying that's the story that gets projected so much.
And he has been seen as a martyr in this country for longer than he was alive. And how, then, do we go back and create him as a real person? I mean, it's almost a philosophical question about storytelling. I'm just curious if you have thoughts about it.
ENGEL: (Laughter). I think you have to go back and put Jim in context.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRANTLEY: Before Jim Reeb was transformed into a martyr, he was a real person - a husband, a father of four. He was born on January 1, 1927, in Wichita, Kan. He was an only child. When he was 7 years old, the dust storms swept through the Midwest. And Jim was bedridden with a terrible bout of rheumatic fever. The wind blew dust through the cracks around windows and doors and into the bedroom where Jim lay. So his mother, Mae, stayed by his bedside, draping wet cloths over his mouth to help him breathe.
GRACE: The family moved to Casper, Wyo. when Jim was 15. A few years later, he met Marie, and they were married - college at St. Olaf, and then seminary at Princeton. Jim had been a pious child, a Presbyterian destined for the pulpit. But after Princeton, he began to question his faith. And that questioning led him to the Unitarian Universalists, and ultimately to the position of assistant minister at All Souls in D.C.
All Souls was one of the most important churches in the denomination, and his job there was enviable. But in the last two years of his life, Jim became restless. He felt the comfortable position at All Souls was in conflict with the values he preached. And in the turbulence of the early '60s, the beginning of the civil rights movement, he saw growing inequality and injustice all around.
And so he made a surprising decision - to leave All Souls and seek a new position where he could engage more directly with the community outside the church's walls. Ron Engel had a stack of letters Jim had written to him during this time.
ENGEL: Here's when he was looking for a church. He had trouble communicating to the UUA department of the ministry of what kind of church he wanted to serve. And he wrote, (reading) the department of ministry assures me they will get my name on lists of desirable churches. If there is anything I'm not interested in, it is joining the list of those looking for desirable churches. What the hell is a desirable church?
I mean, here was the crux of the matter. Were we serious about what kind of a religious and political community we were seeking to nurture?
BRANTLEY: After months of searching, Jim began to feel that really any church, with its institutional structures and administrative responsibilities, would interfere with the community organizing he felt called to. So he took a job in Boston with the American Friends Service Committee working on low-income housing issues out of a storefront office in the city's majority-black Roxbury neighborhood. It was important to Jim to live in the same place where he worked, to raise his family there, to send his kids to the local schools.
ENGEL: OK, here's one about when they were looking for the house. This is the fall of 1964. (Reading) It took me many days of looking to find this house. It is three floors, 11 rooms and full basement, plus a vacant lot across the street. It was difficult to find this house. Almost no one wants to encourage you to move here. One lady asked me if I was crazy when I told her I really wanted to move into the neighborhood.
Then he goes on to say, (reading) the children are in school and in general happy. John wanted to help to integrate his class. Some gal in Washington wanted to know if I really wanted my children to go to school with negroes. And I said yes, of course. All children are lucky who integrate schools. Marie is fine, busy getting the house in order. I am faced every day to stretch my mind. There are new problems, new ideas and new experiences to deal with. I have seized the bull by the horns. I am doing what seems important. And let the damn torpedoes come.
GRACE: Wow, that's something else.
ENGEL: It is. It's...
GRACE: That really - I feel that's - I must say on a personal level, like, having worked on this story about him for so long, this is kind of first time I've ever felt in his presence to some extent. It's a kind of a peculiar feeling, really.
ENGEL: Andy, that's - let me just go on. Here is Jim. (Reading) We have a challenge to meet as a family. We are together sharing in what I think will probably be one of the most significant times in our lives. We are all amazingly well, and I am spending more time with the family than ever before. We have finally got our ping pong table. And Marie, John and I play regularly. We are resuming our Friday night birthday festival. We have a cake, candles. Someone tells us about a person we admire, and we sing "Happy Birthday."
ENGEL: (Reading) We think of you and are grateful for your friendship across the miles. Jim, Marie and the Indians.
GRACE: Wow. Yeah.
ENGEL: So that's - that was the Jim. I mean, that was the...
ENGEL: ...Jim Reeb that we all - there you are.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EDGAR NEEDHAM: Do you think the cause for which your husband came to Selma was worth it?
BRANTLEY: This is Marie Reeb in 1965 speaking to the press from the hospital in Birmingham.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARIE REEB: I don't feel that I can answer that for myself. I can only answer for Jim, that any consequences that might occur did merit this.
BRANTLEY: After returning to Boston, Marie gathered her children and moved almost immediately back to Wyoming. Her family and Jim's family were both in Casper, and she would need help with their four children. For many, Jim had become a martyr for racial equality, his death a flashpoint in the civil rights movement.
But for Marie, Jim was a husband and a father and a partner. And so as Jim's death became a public spectacle, Marie chose to keep her grief private. She has not spoken to the press since that brief and painful interview from the Birmingham hospital on March 10, 1965.
GRACE: We knew all along we needed to talk to the Reeb family, but we wanted to finish our reporting first so we could tell them everything we learned. So we got in touch with Jim and Marie's daughter, Anne, who had become a kind of spokesperson for the family. We explained to Anne what we'd been working on. And she said she'd talk it over with her mom and the rest of the family.
When we heard back from her a few weeks later, she said Marie felt uneasy about doing an interview. Over the years, Jim's life had been consumed by the story of his death. And Marie had stayed away from all that. And now two guys from Alabama she'd never met before wanted to come talk with her about it. If Marie was going to talk to us, we would need to come out to Wyoming and make the case in person to the whole family.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRANTLEY: This is Marie Reeb's home in Casper, Wyo., the same house she moved the family into in the spring of 1965. There's a large framed portrait of Jim on the wall as you walk in the front door. We all sit in the living room. John, Jim and Marie's oldest child who was 12 when his father died, is here with his wife, his two children and his grandchildren.
And Anne is here from California with her son. He makes us a special breakfast, a Reeb family tradition, what they call roll-up pancakes. Then after breakfast and an hour of visiting, Marie turns to us and agrees to be interviewed once again.
M REEB: And the six months that we were in Boston was the happiest that we had because Jim was just getting started on a job. And he had - he hadn't said he was going to be on this committee or that - that organization. (Laughter). And we had lots of time together. And Sundays, we would - after church, we would have a picnic lunch somewhere. We'd go someplace where we'd never been before. But it was a happy time.
GRACE: Was that a hard decision, for you to come back here? Or did it just seem obvious?
M REEB: It was a no-brainer (laughter). It was what I thought I needed to do and to have my children safe. And my main concern were for my four children. And we were such a short time in Boston that I had no real ties. So family was in Wyoming, and Mom and Dad Reeb had lost their only son. And so I wanted my children to be there for grandparents.
GRACE: So I know a lot has been made of his decision to go to Selma. And I wonder if you can kind of talk about what you remember about that. I know that's probably a hard memory, but...
M REEB: Well, we saw, of course, Bloody Sunday watching the TV, just a horrible feeling to see what was going on and seeing all that taking place. And so then, of course, when Dr. King was asking for anyone to come down and help and members of the clergy, he just looked at me. And he says, I have to go. (Laughter).
And I said really? After looking at what we saw on the screen, and you're wanting to go down into that situation? I still have to go. So we packed a bag and took him Monday evening to Logan Airport and saw him off.
GRACE: Were you angry at him at all?
M REEB: I can't be angry. I couldn't be angry. I was upset that he wanted to go but not angry.
GRACE: And do you - what do you remember of the University Hospital in Birmingham?
M REEB: They were very nice to me. They provided a bed for me to sleep in when I was ready. So of course, they came and said that, you know, there was no hope. So I went in to see him. And I, for some reason - and I thought later, why didn't you just go and hug him and whatever? But I just looked at him and knew that he wasn't going to live and just...
GRACE: Marie was in Birmingham with Jim's father. President Johnson and Lady Bird sent yellow roses to them at the hospital. And after Jim died, the president sent a government airplane to take them back to Boston.
BRANTLEY: So how old were you?
ANNE REEB: I was 5.
GRACE: This is Anne Reeb.
A REEB: My memory is when my sister and I were sitting with you, Mom. And we were - you were telling us that Dad had been hurt and that - I never, ever remember you saying that he was killed. But I remember you saying he was hurt and that he would never be coming back. But I remember Karen and I being upset. And I remember someone was holding Steven. I can't remember who had Steven in his arms. And I remember John was very upset and upstairs in his room.
And I do remember that memory, that it was something big had happened, something larger and important. And I remember feeling - as I got older, I remember feeling somehow an understanding why you had to be so courageous and strong, but then also wondering that we could have - there was an absence of us being able to share in that grief somehow because we were little. And I think John held...
M REEB: John...
A REEB: ...John held the grief, a lot of that, as - being a 12-year-old and understanding it the most.
BRANTLEY: Does that ring true to you, John?
JOHN REEB: Yes.
BRANTLEY: I'm curious, John, do you mind if I ask you? Do you remember much about moving to Casper from Boston?
J REEB: Not really. I just remember that the president, Johnson, had sent a plane for us to come back. Right, Mom? That's about the highlight of what I remember.
A REEB: I can't remember when it was, but there was a point at which I knew that my dad died in Selma and that someone - he was murdered. And then I had to go through that whole process. And just right after we moved here, I remember feeling like he was going to come in the door. He was going to come - he was going to come back. He was going to come home.
M REEB: One thing I regret to this day is that, having children go through this type of experience with the death of the father, that I didn't have some professional help, maybe - and especially for John, whose life has been affected through many, many years. And that's one thing I regret doing - not doing, I should say, not doing.
BRANTLEY: Four generations of Reebs had gathered in Marie's living room that morning - sitting on couches, perching on armrests, bouncing babies on knees. And laid out before us on the coffee table in the middle of the room were boxes and boxes of things about Jim.
BRANTLEY: One box was full of newspaper clippings, another stuffed with letters from people across the country. And there was a box that contained files related to the investigation and the trial.
M REEB: Yeah, I have no idea what's in that file, Anne. It just said Reeb trial. I haven't read this. And...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Have you ever read it?
M REEB: No.
A REEB: I thought you did, Mom.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm sure there's a lot of things...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, I don't think she ever did.
M REEB: I...
A REEB: Did you not want to read that?
M REEB: I didn't want to read it, no.
A REEB: Why? Just too much?
M REEB: I just - I didn't want to hear what they were saying, you know? And for years and years, I never remembered their names that was in the trial because I didn't want to see faces or names, and I didn't want to have any kind of hate feelings developing for these men. I just didn't want that, so - I would have to look up the names somewhere to even call them to memory.
BRANTLEY: This is the thing about the Reeb family. They haven't dwelled on who committed this murder, on the injustice of the acquittal. But after all these years, they did want some clarity about what happened to Jim. And so sitting there in the living room, we told them everything, the definitive version of that night - about Francis, about Portwood, the counternarrative that had sprung up to absolve these men, and that from everything we'd learned, Elmer Cook was the one who swung the club that caused the injury that killed Jim. And after we'd finished, they didn't think about themselves so much, about their own pain or about a missed opportunity for justice. Instead they thought about what it meant in the lives of the men who had killed Jim.
A REEB: So that was - so it was - it was Cook that had this - the billy club. I can only surmise or imagine that those men had to take that and put that away almost - and put it over - put it somewhere so that they could go on with their lives because you tell yourself so many times, I mean, the story was put out there so that they - because they're not telling the truth. They know that that was wrong. They know what they did was wrong. They took someone's life. They beat three men on the street, and yet, they had to take that and put that over there and compartmentalize that and start to even believe their own story that oh, no, they weren't there. Oh, no, that didn't happen. Oh, that was somebody else. Oh, no. Actually, that man died by someone else's hand because the movement needed a martyr. So there's all this compartmentalizing going and various - to cope. They were coping because they were guilty.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRANTLEY: None of the men who killed Jim Reeb had ever been held to account. None of them had ever had to reckon openly with what they'd done. But just a few months after this visit in Marie Reeb's living room in Casper, something completely unexpected happened. Elmer Cook's great granddaughter reached out to the Reebs to try and make sense of it all. That's after this.
GRACE: Not long after we went to Casper to talk to the Reebs, we heard from Jim's daughter, Anne, and his granddaughter, Leah. The two of them were coming to Birmingham to do an interview with a local filmmaker who was making a documentary about the Unitarians' role in the civil rights movement. So we planned to get together while they were in town. But a couple of days before they arrived, Anne called me with some unexpected news. The filmmaker had just given a talk about the film at a local university. And afterwards, a student had come up to introduce herself. She said her name was Katie Cook, that she was Elmer Cook's great granddaughter. And she told the filmmaker that if there was ever an opportunity, she would really like to speak to the Reeb family.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
GRACE: As part of their trip to Birmingham, Anne and Leah had been invited to speak at the Unitarian church. Anne and Leah were sitting in the front row of the church. And sitting at the very back was Katie Cook. They had plans to meet after the service.
GRACE: And this meeting between Anne and Leah and Katie, nearly 54 years after Jim Reeb's death, it set in motion a series of events that would allow us to trace the legacy of this murder through the generations of the Cook family, to see the different ways they had tried to reckon with it.
KATIE COOK: Well, I'm really happy that you would want to meet me. So it is, like - it's a little bit intimidating. But I just have to remind myself that, like, I didn't do anything.
LEAH REEB VARELA: That's right.
K COOK: So I think that you're rational people and that you have no reason to be mad at me...
K COOK: ...Because, like, when I told people that I was going to meet you, they were like, is that a good idea?
K COOK: And I was like, well, I don't think they're mad at me specifically. So...
A REEB: No. No, no, no.
VARELA: ...Yeah. I guess Anne will speak to it, too. I was shocked. But I instantly was - so you're a generation below me, right? So my dad is Anne's older brother. He's the oldest of James' kids. What I thought about is just the evolution of change in generations and that you and I get to have a choice as grandchildren and great-grandchildren to believe what we want to believe.
K COOK: I didn't even know about all of this until I was a junior in high school...
A REEB: Really?
K COOK: ...Because - yeah. I had always been told that my great-grandfather had been accused of murder because - my mom and the family, for the most part, was like, he was accused. And they had this theory that he just beat - I don't know. I'm just going to say Reverend Reeb.
A REEB: That's fine.
K COOK: OK - that he just beat up Reverend Reeb but then someone else killed him. And I don't know if they truly believe that or - because maybe they truly believe it 'cause they just want to see the good. Or maybe it just helps them cope with it. I don't know. But when I found out about it, I just did a simple Google search - Elmer Cook Selma. And I was like - oh, my gosh. Like, there was so much stuff.
Like, I read, like, these articles about, like, LBJ getting involved and sending flowers to your mother and MLK speaking at the funeral and just, like, all of that. And I was like, wow. It's really depressing because, obviously, I have some of his DNA. Part of what made him, him is what makes me, me. But like you said, it's how you use it.
VARELA: Totally. Your family history doesn't make you unless you choose it to.
K COOK: And it's kind of ironic that the best way to separate myself from it is to jump straight into it and study it, talk about it and everything. I don't know. I just, like - I think that a lot of people would be ashamed of it. And I'm not because I didn't make those decisions. And so...
A REEB: That's right.
K COOK: ...I want to know from you what it's like to have a father that's, like, such a - like, I can't - like, coming from the complete opposite of you, I know what it's like to have family in negative history. But I don't know what it's like to have a dad who is literally a martyr, who did such a big, huge thing out of his love and compassion for other people. Do you have a lot to live up to?
A REEB: It's hard sometimes. It's hard because I was 5. And so I have just - I have a few memories of him. And so everything that I've learned about my dad, I've learned from my mother, from my older brother John.
And when I was a teen, I started to also look into my history and really start to dig through boxes. And I discovered some reel-to-reels of his sermons, and so I was able to listen to his voice. And it's so funny. The first time I ever heard his voice, I just - I didn't hear one word he said. All I did was just listen to his voice. And it brought back the memories of his voice telling us stories, reading to us at night. So to answer your question, there are times when it's hard for me. It is a lot to tell the story...
K COOK: Yeah.
A REEB: ...You know? It is. It's hard to tell the story because it can bring up some pain. And - but I think that there's value in the story. So yeah.
K COOK: I think that there's value in the story but that there's also some value in the pain from the story...
A REEB: Absolutely.
K COOK: ...Because I am a firm believer that pain sparks empathy...
A REEB: Absolutely.
K COOK: ...And that empathy is the greatest human power. To be able to feel for others and relate to them is, I think, the most important thing in the world because it's the only way that we can all share this world because without it, there's just chaos.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
DREW COOK: Hi.
GRACE: Hello. How are you?
BRANTLEY: Hey, I'm Chip.
D COOK: Come on in. Nice to meet you, Chip.
GRACE: Hey. I'm Andy.
D COOK: Nice to meet you, Andy.
GRACE: I'm sorry. I'm rolling.
D COOK: Oh, no. It's all good. No, no, no.
BRANTLEY: You want us to take our shoes off?
D COOK: Please do, yes.
BRANTLEY: Yeah. We will.
D COOK: New York City's, you know, kind of gross. So...
D COOK: ...Don't want to track it inside.
BRANTLEY: When Katie Cook learned the story of her great-grandfather, the first thing she did was call her Uncle Drew. Drew was older. And as his grandson, he was one step closer to Elmer himself. He was very close to his grandmother, who the family called Big Momma. Elmer was always called Big Daddy.
Drew has gone through his own process of trying to make sense of his family's history. And he has made a life for himself a very long way away from Selma. We visited him in the apartment he shares with his partner in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.
D COOK: I don't know how other families are, but our family is very, very story-based. I mean, I don't remember specifically when they explained the situation to me, but they did eventually. And like, the story that I was told as a child - and maybe this was, like, really dumbed down because I was a child - but that Big Daddy and a couple of his friends were tried for the murder of a man who was - like, apparently the story was like, he was hit in the head or something. Like, he - they got in a fight. And then he was - he had these head injuries, and so they - the ambulance took him to, I think, Birmingham.
And like, when he got into the ambulance, they said he was talking and he was, like, coherent. And then when he arrived in Birmingham, his skull was crushed in. And this is, like, the exact - like, his skull was crushed in - that was, like, the point. And then - that was, like, all they told me really. They never specifically said Big Daddy was innocent or anything like that. They just kind of left me to form my own conclusion about that.
Obviously, the implication is if he got in and he was OK and he arrived and he had his skull crushed, then someone in the ambulance did it or someone else did it. And it's like a conspiracy of some kind against Big Daddy, which is, like, I think now, obviously, absurd. You know, it was a really absurd thing. But...
GRACE: Do you remember - when it was told to you, was it in the - was this event in the context of the civil rights movement at all? Or...
D COOK: In Selma, everything is in the context of the civil rights movement.
BRANTLEY: What happened after the - how did the story get deepened after that? Like, when did you find out more about it or do your own research into what happened?
D COOK: So there was no deepening of the story from them. That was me finding it out. So when I was in high school - well, I don't know. You know, I feel a lot of shame about that. And I mean, shame is something that gay people deal with from an early age. And I felt a lot of shame, but I ignored it for a long time.
GRACE: About what? Yeah.
D COOK: About the fact that my grandfather was a murderous racist. It's not a nice feeling, you know? I mean, I still feel, like, very, like, nasty about that. But...
BRANTLEY: But how did you come to think that he was a murderous racist? 'Cause your family didn't tell you that.
D COOK: Well, I mean, it just - you know, this is my inference based on his behavior towards them. I mean, like I said, if he could treat them that way, I'm sure he could treat other people far worse.
GRACE: Drew was born after Elmer died, but the whole Cook family still lived very much in his shadow. Drew's father, Bob, would tell stories about Elmer's violence. And there seemed to be no shortage of family squabbles and bad blood. Drew's mother got him out of Selma at 13, moving him to the suburbs of Birmingham. And he credits that move with basically saving him.
D COOK: I spent a lot of time not thinking about Selma and not thinking about my past there because it was, like, painful, and I didn't want to think about it. So that was very much in that category of things I didn't want to think about. But I remember - the next time that it really, like, hit me hard is when I was with - I remember was living in New York City in East Harlem at this, like, tenement that I lived in for, like, five years.
But my best friend, Esther, was living with me at the time. And the movie "Selma" came out - you know, this sort of blockbuster movie. This was, like, 2014 I think. And we were watching it. And James Reeb's murder is dramatized in it. And I remember thinking, like - oh, my God. Oh, my God. I know I'm - this is like - this is - this is James Reeb. This is my grandpa. And so I, like, paused the movie. And I was like - Esther, oh, my God. Oh, my God. I was like - I was really, like, freaking out, you know, because you - I guess I could feel how close these historical events were to me and, like, how just sort of surreal and crazy that is.
You know, it's a very, like, strange feeling. And subsequently, I've told all kinds of people. And it's like - I mean, I don't tell everybody because, like, you know, everyone assumes that everyone from Alabama are these, like, you know, hay-in-your-teeth racists. But if someone seems, like, cool and we're having a long conversation and, like, we're talking about any kind of, like, adjacent issues, like, I'll tell the story because it's crazy. You know, it's, like, a wild, wild story. You know?
GRACE: It's funny what you just said about being from Alabama 'cause - I mean, Chip and I are both from Alabama and of course spent a lot of time - lived outside of the state. And the burden that you feel as an Alabamian to sort of defend the place...
D COOK: Yeah. I know. Oh, God.
GRACE: ...Against the claim - against the claim that, in your case, is absolutely true, which is that you're descended of these, you know...
D COOK: Right, right. That's the other piece, right? It's like, well, s***. How do I talk about this 'cause it's like - 'cause my grandfather is - I mean, he is this, like, murderous villain. You know, he's this like racist villain that people are - like, think exists. I mean, he really - he's like the embodiment of it.
D COOK: Those are - that's my family.
BRANTLEY: Drew moved far away. He remade his life. But just like the rest of us, he couldn't escape where he'd come from. And so one day in the fall of 2015, thinking about the Reeb family, Drew Cook sat down to try and write them a letter.
D COOK: ...My desktop. I don't know where it is.
GRACE: What did you name the file?
D COOK: Letter to James Reeb's son. I can read it.
D COOK: (Reading) Dear Mr. Reeb, I don't even know how to begin this letter. How could I, really, after so many years of not even knowing the perpetrators, much less the victims? But I write you now out of a deep desire to communicate my sadness and shame over what happened to your father. I feel so deeply precisely because it was my grandfather, Elmer Cook, who was one of the men who perpetrated the violence that took your father's life.
From what I've read, no one really knows who dealt the fatal blow, but I would bet anything it was my grandfather who did it. Something inside just tells me so. I never knew my grandfather. He died in 1972. I was born to his youngest son, Bob, in 1989. While I never really knew him personally, I would tell you that the memories of his violence and madness haunt our family, particularly my father, to this day. I see it in the irreparable emotional scars he inflicted on his children.
But that's all I've got. I never completed it.
GRACE: As a piece of writing, I mean, I'm trying to put myself in your shoes a little bit, but it seems like you get to a place where I can see why you wouldn't finish it because you're sort of like, what is the ask here, you know? Like, on the one hand, you'd like to maybe express that your grandfather's terror, essentially, terrorized your family, too, but then you probably also think but the man I'm writing to's (ph) father - you know, there must be, like, some push and pull there I would imagine.
D COOK: Probably, and that's probably why I never finished it. I was just like, this is, like, not a great exercise necessarily but I would like to at least communicate a condolence of some kind, you know, like, to say that I'm, you know, I'm sorry that it happened because I am. You know, it's really - it's really tragic, the whole thing.
BRANTLEY: Like, what's the ideal outcome from that gesture in your mind? Like, when you think about writing a letter or getting in touch, like, what do you envision that comes next?
D COOK: I would like to hear what he was like. I mean, he - to me, he seems like a really extraordinary human being, you know? I mean, I've read a little bit about his biography and everything, and he just seems like a really good man, a really decent man and the sort of person that I would like to be in life, you know? You know, to me, he was just a nameless man who died in an ambulance, like, questionably. That was - like, before that, I didn't really understand.
BRANTLEY: Once you've sort of figured another version out - like, have you talked to your parents about that since then? I mean, it sounds like you've...
D COOK: I talked to my mom, but, I mean, my mom and I have a lot more open dialogue than my father and I. My dad and I don't really talk about things that are - we just stick to neutral topics. I just don't want to...
GRACE: Do you think your dad needs to think that his father didn't commit murder?
D COOK: I think so, yeah. I absolutely think that. I absolutely think that. You know, I don't - I think that one of the defining qualities of my dad is that he is, like - he does not have a lot of emotional tools to deal with things. Like, he just has a very limited tool box for that. And so I don't think that he can - he, like, has the emotional bandwidth to deal with some things and, like, that is, like, very firmly one of the things that he just like will never reconcile - like, never try to deal with, I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: Still, we asked Drew if he thought his dad, Bob, would talk to us. Drew said he didn't think so, but he'd ask because he did want Bob to hear what we'd found. And then a couple of months later, we heard back from Drew. His dad had decided to hear us out. That's after this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRANTLEY: Bob Cook is Elmer Cook's youngest child. He lives in Tennessee near the Mississippi-Alabama border, but he didn't want us to meet him at his house. Instead, we met him at the public library in the small town of Iuka, Miss. It was thunder storming that day.
GRACE: So what - did you - you were born in Selma, is that right?
BOB COOK: Yes.
GRACE: So where did y'all live when you were growing up?
B COOK: The - when I was born, we lived on this corner of Second Avenue and Union.
GRACE: What would you - what would you say your dad did?
B COOK: At that time, he had a loan business and - where he loaned money to people. Some might refer to it as loan shark because the interest rate was really high and about all the customers were black. Right across from the Silver Moon, he had a place on the corner that was a pawn shop and right next to it was C&C Novelty. He had the loan company there, and people would come in and pay on their loan. I remember as young as 14 I would get up early, and we'd go out about 4:30 or 4, and maybe when I was even 14 I would drive the truck and he'd - to these houses. And he'd go up there and have a - either a billy club or blackjack, and he always had a pistol. He'd knock on door and tell them they need to come pay. And that was a regular thing, but you would hear, you know, at the doors on some of them hollering and carrying on.
GRACE: Was your dad proud of himself? Was he proud of the work he did and...
B COOK: Good question. I don't - I don't think he felt guilty about anything, so I don't know if he would be proud or - I never saw him look like he was feeling guilty. So I - yeah, I think he was pretty successful.
GRACE: When Elmer Cook was arrested for the murder of Jim Reeb, the Selma Times-Journal printed his prior arrests. Elmer had been arrested 25 times in Selma, 17 of which were for assault and battery. But this rap sheet didn't include the violence he brought home with him.
B COOK: One night, he'd asked me to go the Dairy Queen and get some chili dogs for him. So I drove my car up there and got them when I was there. Some guy was there, and he asked me, would I carry him home? And so I said, yeah. He got in the car. I didn't realize he lived at Craig Field, which was a long way. So when I got back - we had glass across the back of a den, and when I came back, I looked in and see my daddy eating a sandwich. So I knew I was in trouble. So I came in. He started beating me, and I'm not sure if it was that time or another, but he grabbed me by the hair and hit me in the nose and broke my nose.
B COOK: And I had to feed the dog - the chili dogs took my dog outside.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)
GRACE: Wow. That's quite a thunder strike at the end of that story. I - it must've - yeah. I mean, what you say about fear, it must have just been terrifying.
BRANTLEY: How do you live with that? I mean, how do you - how do you process how to be around somebody like that?
B COOK: Well, I was scared when - I could tell what kind of mood he's in. But whenever he was mad, you knew it, and you tried to steer clear and not doing anything wrong. But if there was any confrontation with him - I think he may have been a boxer, too, in the Navy. But if there was any confrontation, then the first thing he's going to do is he hit somebody.
BRANTLEY: I'm curious how your dad talked to you about his involvement in the Reeb attack.
B COOK: I - you know, he had told me that he didn't - he did beat those guys, him and Stanley and them, Duck, whoever. But he said he didn't kill him.
GRACE: Did you ask him about that? Was that important for you?
B COOK: I don't know that I asked him. Maybe I did. I don't remember. He just told me that. I don't know. I just remember him saying that he didn't kill - that he felt like somebody else killed him on the way to Birmingham.
GRACE: You think he needed to believe that simply for himself or do you think he...
B COOK: Honestly, I think he really believed it.
GRACE: What makes you think that?
B COOK: Well, from what you hear about it, I mean, you would think so. The whole deal was the guy was - got up with some help and went away. And that's - I think that's the real reason he thought that something else must have happened.
BRANTLEY: That's the story Bob Cook grew up hearing, grew up believing, and no one else in his life had ever offered a different version of events.
GRACE: We found the name of this other man, Bill Portwood. Do you remember Bill Portwood?
B COOK: Yes, I do. He was - used to play golf with my daddy a lot.
GRACE: Yeah. Have you ever heard anything about him being involved?
B COOK: I've heard nothing specific, but I remember hearing something about that he may have been - had something to do with it. I don't remember asking, but I remember him telling me something about it.
BRANTLEY: Drew doubted that his dad would ever be able to deal with the true story of what happened to Jim Reeb. But Bob wanted to meet with us, and he heard us out. And as we talked, it became clear he wanted to sincerely understand what we had found.
GRACE: We told you we'd been researching this story for a long time. And I know when we first sat down, you had some questions. What questions do you have for us about what we've - what we found out?
B COOK: Well, a few things. I didn't ever understand - I mean, I never knew anybody to ask, but why would they not go to the Vaughan or - the Medical Center rather than the Good Samaritan?
GRACE: Well, they actually didn't go to Good Samaritan. They went to Burwell Infirmary. Basically, the white people who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement were told by all the black folks they knew in town that they couldn't go to those hospitals and not only that, but there was not a neurologist, you know, in the entire city of Selma. So regardless of who he was or what hospital he went to, he would've been sent to Birmingham.
BRANTLEY: He had a couple of other questions about the nature of Reeb's injury.
B COOK: The doctor in Birmingham - did he testify? What did he say?
GRACE: About the ambulance ride and the timeline of events.
BRANTLEY: By 8 o'clock, he's at Burwell being checked into Burwell. By 8:30, he's examined, and the doctor pretty quickly says this guy's injury is severe.
GRACE: Like a lot of people in Selma, Bob had heard that it took hours and hours to get Reeb from Selma to Birmingham.
B COOK: When they stopped, it was due to what?
BRANTLEY: We laid out for him everything we'd learned from the statements we've gathered, the files we'd combed through, the interviews we'd done.
B COOK: But y'all have answered some questions I think that sound very reasonable. Your answer, it makes sense to me. The whole ambulance thing and how and why it took the time, it really wasn't as much time as people had said and several different things that you clarified that I had the wrong understanding or wrong idea about.
GRACE: Where you're not the only one. I mean, it's a very pervasive story in this - in Selma to this day, so it's one of the reasons why we wanted to try to figure out what really happened.
B COOK: Until the information y'all have shared with me today, then I thought it might be like some. But now I'd say that probably not, that it's probably the result of a beating.
BRANTLEY: You mean Jim Reeb's death?
GRACE: How does that make you feel, if that's something you've just sort of come to today?
B COOK: Well, again, I know it's wrong. And I never have been proud of the fact that it happened. So - and I hate it for his family.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REEB: There is, it seems to me, in each one of us this temptation to be violent.
GRACE: That's Jim Reeb again from his last sermon at All Souls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REEB: If these kind of things can so easily arise in our own beings here, where the issues are not of life and death matters, how much more easily must it arise in people who are suffering beyond anything that we can well imagine for ourselves? We are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort, with no real hope that in our lifetime we're going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: We look to the past for all sorts of reasons - to figure out how to separate ourselves from it, to find models for how to live, to better understand who we are - because while we don't have to be defined by the people in our past, they are buried in us.
BRANTLEY: My great-great-great-great-grandfather James Brantley moved from South Carolina to Alabama in the early 1800s. He later married a woman named Elizabeth Kirven. And then James and Elizabeth settled south of Montgomery, near Hayneville where they raised their five children. When James died in 1843, Elizabeth buried him in their backyard and marked the grave with a simple stone. She put a rocking chair beside the stone. And it was her custom to sit there every afternoon and smoke her pipe.
Once James' will was probated, all of this property was deeded to Elizabeth, including the house, the land and nine human beings. The inventory of the will lists their names and their dollar values, beginning with, quote, "one Negro girl, Rose, $250" and ending with, quote, "one Negro boy, Napoleon, $100."
GRACE: And my great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Posey McConnell, served as a judge in the county just north of where I live today. He fought for the Confederacy. And at the dawn of the war in 1860, he was living up the road, and he owned 16 enslaved people. The eldest was a 63-year-old man, the youngest a 1-year-old girl. After he died in 1903, his tombstone was engraved, the memory of the just is blessed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOANNE BLAND: I don't know what it's going to take to make the world right. I do know that you should not be sitting, waiting for it to happen, for somebody else to do it.
BRANTLEY: That's Joanne Bland again. She was on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, an 11-year-old marching alongside her sister. Joanne has spent much of her adult life in Selma. She co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum here and now gives civil rights tours of Selma. But those tours aren't just about what happened here during the movement.
BLAND: When you talk about reconciliation, you have to talk about a way to distribute the power. And nobody wants to give up any power. Anytime there's a minute shift in power from the people who were holding the power, a battle ensues. I can give you a perfect example, the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Tell me one year it has not been under attack. Come on. I'm listening. So if voting's not important, why would you try to keep it away from me? And why would you try to stop people from voting after they get the right to vote if it wasn't important?
GRACE: Joanne's trying to keep a certain past alive in a place filled with lots of people who want to forget it. And the people who want to forget it, they tell Joanne she needs to look forward, needs to stop dwelling on this history, that it's water under the bridge.
BLAND: What you going to tell me? Oh, yeah, that was then. We need to move on. Unfortunately, we've got too many people who feel that way. So how can you tell me to move on? So you get bogged down in this history, and you stay there. No, no, that's not true. And I want you to realize those same things are still happening today.
BRANTLEY: One of the things we have run into is white people doing this, working on the story and trying to talk to white Selmians (ph) who have some connection directly to the Reeb story, is they have proximity to it, but they want to have nothing to do with it. They don't want to remember. They have forgotten it. They have willed themselves to forget.
BLAND: I mean, you don't like to be reminded of painful things either. And I can't help but think some of them feel not just guilty but incompetent, that some today, if they were honest with themselves, would say they - if they had known that this was going to be the result, resulted in this man's death, they would have gotten up and said something. And now, 53 years later, you didn't get up and say nothing. So now you've got that burden on you.
So my grandmother taught us that all people are good. So it's just sometimes evilness will overshadow that goodness. I had a problem with that when I was growing up. I didn't know any good white people, period - until the movement.
GRACE: During the years we were working on this story, we'd check in every so often with Joanne to see what was happening in Selma, to give her updates on our reporting, on our search for the fourth man, on our attempts to make sense out of it all.
BRANTLEY: I think when we first started, it felt like if we could find that person, that would help something, it would be a piece...
BRANTLEY: ...To plug into that puzzle, you know?
BLAND: Right, to put it all together.
BLAND: Yeah, but - and it's - think about the time. It's 53 years later, and most of them were in their late 20s and 30s by then. How old would they be now?
BLAND: Too old to talk about it.
BRANTLEY: And we have, at various times, convinced ourselves that a good outcome is just having a - an official version, something as close to the truth as you can get...
BRANTLEY: ...An acknowledgement, of some way, that this happened, that people lied about it at the time. And here is, in fact, what happened.
GRACE: Well, these stories - these kinds of stories so often, like the Jimmie Lee case, it's like, all right, we got the guy. Now we don't have to think about the way - like, the power structure that protected him for so long.
GRACE: And now I can turn the channel and do something else now. I don't have to think about how implicated I am in something.
BLAND: Right, and if you don't, then out of sight, out of mind. If it's not constantly thought of, in your face, you don't have to do nothing about it. So now that we've sealed this up and sealed the envelope, and we can put that in, file that, and we don't ever have to talk about that anymore, even though the pain that their lives and actions caused has determined how I am today. And they don't realize that, how that - it connects thoroughly to me. You've been exonerated because somebody said I'm sorry. But I haven't.
The pain you inflict is still there. This leads to this, and this leads to that. And this led to this, and this led to that. It's a continuous cycle. It's like a tree with branches, that if you cut off one branch, don't mean the damn tree going to die. It's just going to grow another branch. So - (laughter) - and that's what's happening. We need to find the root of all this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRANTLEY: The river came first, off the mountains headed toward the sea. And it took thousands of years for the river to cut this bluff out of the chalky white clay. And after the bluff, the people. The first people to settle on this bluff built a town and called it Selma. As they laid the town out, they designated four corner lots for churches, one for a public square, one for a market. And in the middle of the busiest street, they built an auction house where white men could buy and sell black men and women and children. The labor of these enslaved people produced unnumbered bales of cotton, which were loaded onto steamers and sent downriver across the world, enriching this entire young nation, the North and the South.
But the system that built that wealth was vicious and unconscionable. So to justify it, white people hid behind a story. They hid behind a lie. The lie said white people were superior to black people. And this lie would endure long after slavery was abolished, shaping so much about our country - our neighborhoods and our schools, our bank accounts and our prisons - because our present is shaped by our past, just as the bluff was shaped by the river.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: In Selma, it always comes back to the river. One overcast afternoon in 1965, a group of men and women marched across the river on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Awaiting them on the other side was an act of violence so shocking that it forced many Americans to see the brutality of the lie, to say, this is not the country I want to live in.
And one of those people was a man named Jim Reeb, who a couple of days later found himself with two friends standing in front of a restaurant, just as the street lamps were coming on, wondering whether to turn left or right.
BRANTLEY: WHITE LIES is produced by us, Graham Smith, Nicole Beemsterboer and Connor Towne O'Neill, with help from Cat Schuknecht. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom.
GRACE: Robert Little edits the show, along with N'Jeri Eaton, Keith Woods and Christopher Turpin. Audio engineers were Jay Sizz (ph), James Willetts and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd. The music consultant for WHITE LIES is Lee Shook. Special thanks again to The Dexateens for the use of their song "Take Me To The Speedway," courtesy of Estrus Records.
BRANTLEY: Our story consultant was Julia Barton, and we also had help from Lisa Pollak. A big thank you to Chuck Holmes, Darryl McCollough (ph) and the staff of WBHM in Birmingham, also everyone on NPR's Investigations team, as well as Neal Carruth and NPR's standards and practices editor Mark Memmott, plus Micah Ratner, Ashley Messenger and Michelle Edwards (ph) from NPR's legal team. Thanks, too, to Eric Westervelt and Thomas Burke (ph) for their help with our FOIA requests. We'd like to give a special shout-out to Jimmy Carmichael, Bruce Lanier and Christopher Izor at MAKEbhm; Mark Nelson and Cory Armstrong and the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama; Liz Allie (ph), Kyle Leppard (ph), Drew Davis (ph), Tad Bartlett, Prince Chestnut and Wes McDonald and Scott Zuppardo of Cornelius Chapel Records.
GRACE: Archival tape in this episode comes from ABC News. Special thanks as well to Pam Powell at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, the Iuka Public Library in Iuka, Miss., Jim Baggett from the Birmingham Public Library, Becky Nichols and the Selma Public Library and Beth Spivey at the Old Depot Museum.
BRANTLEY: Be sure to check out our website at npr.org/whitelies. Thanks to the incredible team who made that website happen - Alyson Hurt, Scott Stroud, Thomas Wilburn, Ben de la Cruz, Nicole Werbeck, Desiree Hicks and Susan Vavrick. Meg Anderson is our engagement editor.
GRACE: Our project manager is Mathilde Piard. Nancy Barnes is senior vice president for news, and Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president for programming. And if you like the show, please rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts. It really is the best way for folks to find it. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.