An NPR investigation has uncovered new evidence in a prominent unsolved murder case from the civil rights era, including the identity of an attacker who admitted his involvement but was never charged.
The murder of Boston minister James Reeb in 1965 drew national attention at the time and spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed the Jim Crow voting practices that had disenfranchised millions of black Americans.
The case remains officially unsolved. Three men charged in 1965 with attacking Reeb and two other ministers on a street corner in Selma, Ala., were acquitted by an all-white jury.
But a four-year NPR investigation, led by Alabama-based reporters Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, found an eyewitness to the attack who has never spoken publicly about what she saw. She said the three men acquitted in the case — Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O’Neal “Duck” Hoggle — were, in fact, the men who attacked Reeb.
That witness, Frances Bowden, also described the participation of another man, William Portwood. In an exclusive interview with NPR, Portwood confirmed his participation in the 1965 assault.
“All I did was kick one of them,” Portwood said.
Portwood had been a cabinetmaker in 1965 but on the side worked as hired muscle for Cook. When asked about the night Reeb was attacked, he said, “I was more than there.”
Portwood died less than two weeks after NPR confirmed his involvement.
At the time of his interview with NPR, Portwood was 86 years old and had suffered several small strokes, which made it difficult for him to remember the details of what had happened.
According to the law in Alabama in 1965, had Portwood been arrested after the attack, he could have been tried for murder along with Cook and the Hoggles.
Bowden, who works at a bail bond company on the same street where she watched the attack more than 50 years ago, admitted to NPR that she lied when testifying 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 also told NPR she lied to officers from 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.”
Under federal law, the statute of limitations for perjury and making false statements to the FBI is five years. Under Alabama law it’s three years. Both have long since expired.
According to FBI records obtained by NPR, investigators tried to question Portwood after the attack on Reeb, but he refused to give them a statement. Those records also say that one of the other attackers told investigators he was with Portwood that night, but Portwood’s wife at the time gave her husband an alibi — she said he was going over schoolwork with his daughter.
That daughter, Audrey Sutherland, confirmed to NPR that Portwood told her he was present at the attack, and she confirmed he wasn’t home helping her that night.
The FBI reopened the Reeb case in July 2008. According to the FBI file from that second investigation, also obtained by NPR, agents never approached Portwood or Bowden for follow-up interviews.
Instead, the agent concluded: “A review of the 1965 file provides no leads for further investigation.”
The agent declined to discuss the case with NPR.
Cynthia Deitle, who served as the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit chief from 2008 to 2011, told NPR that federal jurisdiction on cold cases is limited to three things: bombings, kidnappings, or crossing state lines in the commission of a murder.
“If I’m the agent in Birmingham and I get the James Reeb case assigned to me,” said Deitle, “right away … my first thought’s going to be, there’s no federal crime.”
In 2008, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which tasked the FBI and the Department of Justice with reexamining unsolved, racially motivated murders from the civil rights era. The FBI came up with about 100 cases to reopen, including Reeb’s.
“We wanted to make sure that every person who committed one of these homicides had been identified and investigated,” said Deitle, who oversaw the cold case initiative for the bureau.
In more than a decade, that initiative has claimed only one successful federal prosecution.
The story of who and what killed Reeb is told in NPR’s podcast White Lies. To explore photos, research and evidence behind NPR’s investigation, visit npr.org/whitelies.