FBI Records Could Have Solved A Civil Rights Cold Case. Now It’s Too Late

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A memorial to the Rev. James Reeb, attacked near this site in 1965, stands in front of a faded civil rights mural in Selma, Ala.
A memorial to the Rev. James Reeb, attacked near this site in 1965, stands in front of a faded civil rights mural in Selma, Ala.

William Widmer, NPR

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BY CAT SCHUKNECHT

The murder of the Rev. James Reeb was unsolved for more than 50 years.

Then last month, using the FBI’s case file, NPR identified a man who had participated in the attack on Reeb but was never arrested or charged. William Portwood died less than two weeks after reporters Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley confirmed his involvement. At 87, Portwood was the last living person who could have been held to account for Reeb’s murder.

Now, Alabama officials who might have pursued prosecution tell NPR that if the FBI had shared its case file with them, they would have investigated Reeb’s murder years earlier.

It’s impossible to say whether state and local officials would have been able to close the case. The Boston minister was killed during the 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Ala., and three men were tried for and acquitted of the crime. And the FBI has failed to solve Reeb’s murder twice: once in 1965, and a second time in 2008, when it reopened the case as part of its Cold Case Initiative.

However, if the bureau had shared information after it reopened its investigation, Alabama officials might have done what NPR did — solve the case using the FBI’s own file — but years earlier.

“I have no problem with prosecuting cold cases,” says Michael Jackson, the district attorney for Dallas County, Ala. He said it is fair to say that if the FBI had reached out to him with case information, Portwood might have been held to account while he was still alive.

“I think there’s no question about that,” says Jackson, who successfully prosecuted the cold case murder of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2010.

Other Alabama officials tell NPR they, too, would have looked into the case.

“By 2008, Alabama had become a place that was trying to come to terms with its segregationist, racist past.” says Troy King, the state’s attorney general at the time the FBI reopened the Reeb case. “What I’m confident we would have done is a good-faith effort to evaluate the testimony. … We would have devoted resources to it.”

None of the state and local officials NPR interviewed remember the FBI contacting them to share information after it reopened the Reeb case.

“I feel fairly confident, although I don’t have access to the records from my time in office, that the FBI never contacted us or presented it or asked us for assistance or cooperation,” says King.

The same is true for Luther Strange, who took over King’s position in 2011, months before the FBI closed the Reeb case for the last time.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones tells NPR he was disappointed the FBI didn’t share information locally.

“It was just a little disappointing that they didn’t go to the next step to talk to the local folks and say, ‘It doesn’t appear that we have jurisdiction, but here’s a couple people you ought to talk to,’ ” says Jones. As a U.S. attorney in the early 2000s, Jones won convictions of two former Ku Klux Klan members who were part of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

So why didn’t the FBI share information with Alabama officials in the Reeb case? For one, the bureau is known for being secretive.

“All of these records have been just kind of huddled away … within the federal bureaucracy,” says Jones. He co-sponsored a recently signed bill that requires the National Archives to release certain government records on civil rights cold cases.

The bureau may also have been limited by its narrow jurisdiction; in these cases, the FBI can pursue federal charges only on bombings, kidnappings or murders in which the perpetrators cross state lines.

“With Rev. Reeb, that case fell into the ‘we can’t do anything’ pile,” says Cynthia Deitle, who ran the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit during the reopening of the case.

It might not have looked as though anything could have been done at the state level, either; three men had already been tried for and acquitted of the crime.

“These officials are telling you, ‘Hey, if the FBI would have done better or would have shared … we could have put a bad guy in jail,’ ” says Deitle. “But that’s not a guarantee that they would have.”

Deitle doesn’t remember exactly how her unit handled the Reeb case. However, she acknowledges that unless the bureau was partnering with local officials, agents were not necessarily required to share the information in the FBI file.

When asked why the bureau doesn’t make it a standard practice to share information, Deitle responded: “I don’t see any reason why that should not happen in every one of these reinvestigations.”

NPR reached out to the FBI for this story, but the bureau declined to comment on this case.

Still, a spokesperson for the bureau said in an email to NPR that the FBI routinely shares information with its law enforcement partners. As for its actual policy on sharing civil rights-era cold case information with state and local officials? The FBI declined to share it.

The complete story of who and what killed the Rev. James Reeb is told in NPR’s podcast White LiesTo explore a visual narrative of the story — plus photos, research and evidence behind NPR’s investigation — visit npr.org/whitelies.