Dear Drama Observers,
In March of 1965, Civil Rights protestors began a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery where they intended to advocate for changes in state laws which inhibited the voting rights of African American citizens.
In what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked the marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge with clubs and tear gas injuring dozens, including later Congressman John Lewis. ABC interrupted its Sunday Night Movie, Judgment at Nuremburg, to broadcast these gruesome images to a shocked nation.
Subsequent to this event, Martin Luther King issued a call out to the nation’s clergy to come participate with him in this righteous cause. Shortly thereafter, Jim Reeb and two of his fellow Boston ministers arrived in Selma ready to help in any way they could.
As they left a restaurant where they’d eaten supper, these three ministers were attacked by a group of locals, and Jim Reeb received a vicious blow to the head. He was taken by ambulance to Birmingham but died of brain injuries two days later. Martin Luther King gave a eulogy at Reeb’s funeral and President Lyndon Johnson referred to the event during an address to Congress.
Three Selma citizens—Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle, and Namon O’Neal Hoggle—were charged with murder. But as was typically the case in those days, the all-white jury acquitted them in summary fashion, and the murder remained unsolved for the next 50-plus years.
In the mid 2000-teens, two Alabama-based NPR reporters, Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, began digging into this cold case and unearthed some shocking revelations. They discovered that a fourth assailant, Bill Portwood, who had never been accused or tried, admitted to his participation in the attack with the other three. He died a few weeks later. Selma resident, Frances Bowdon, confirmed that she was an eyewitness to the attack which involved all four men. But she also admitted having lied to the FBI when originally questioned and later lied under oath during the trial. In short, these men got away with murder.
But still unexplained back then was the cause of Reeb’s death. So, a narrative emerged that Reeb and been mildly injured but was later killed, not by Selma citizens, but by Civil Rights workers during his ambulance ride to Birmingham. In this way, they could portray Reeb as a white martyr to advance their cause. This myth took hold and is still believed by many to this very day. Selma folks didn’t kill Reeb, the thinking went, Civil Rights workers did. One elderly Selma resident put it this way: “I just always will believe it.”
The true story of these 1965 events and subsequent cracking open of the cold case was unfolded in riveting fashion in the 2019 podcast series, White Lies. I highly recommended it.
Widely-embraced fictions, like the one clung to so vigorously and for so long by Selma residents, are powerful for at least three reasons:
I’ve long been fond of a statement made by James A. Garfield, our twentieth president: “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.” It may be healthy for you to lose some pounds but it’s not pleasant when your scales reveal that you’ve got more weight to lose than you thought. That painful realization doesn’t feel good but acting on it will have a good effect.
And yet, we have this human nature tendency to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable. That’s what the residents of Selma did. A brutal killing by some of their own was a painful reality they didn’t want to face. So, they constructed a counter narrative which let them off the hook and placed all the blame on “outside agitators.” And the longer the myth prevailed, the more deeply ensconced it became.
What the residents of Selma did, as did so many in the South during those years, was to adopt an us-versus-them mentality in which they cast themselves as good guys in an existential struggle against evil bad guys. Thus, they were enabled to embrace lies which they re-labeled as “truth.”
Lies are easy to embrace and hard to challenge when everyone around you appears to believe them. There’s tremendous power in a crowd, for good or for evil.
A consistent theme running through the White Lies podcast series was the difficulty these two reporters encountered trying to get anyone to talk about 50-old-events. Attitudes reflected in such questions as:
- Why dig all that up?
- What good can possibly come from talking about it now?
- Why do you want to blame us for what others did?
- Can’t we all just move on?
It’s another tendency of human nature is to erase from our memories (or try to erase) that which we’d rather forget. Bill Portwood—the fourth assailant who was never accused or tried—admitted that he “willed” himself to forget his participation in the events of that evening so he could be freed from the unpleasantness those memories produced.
But what he acquired instead was a form of bondage slathered over with a mere semblance of freedom.
Collective lies are enslaving but acknowledgments of truth, while uncomfortable to those who hold those lies, are collectively liberating.
Till next week.