NPR Gets Assailant in 1965 Selma Attack to Admit Role

William Portwood admits taking part in assault that left minister James Reeb dead
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 18, 2019 2:32 PM CDT
NPR Reveals 4th Assailant in 1965 Selma Murder
In a Dec. 9, 1965, file photo, three defendants go over a street diagram of area in Selma, Ala., where the clubbing death of a Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. James Reeb took place in March during civil rights strife.   (AP Photo/Horace Cort, File)

An eyewitness to an unsolved 1965 murder that galvanized the civil rights movement admits she lied on the witness stand and to the FBI about the killing of Boston minister James Reeb in Selma, Ala. At the time, Frances Bowden said she could not identify the assailants. But as part of a four-year NPR investigation told through the White Lies podcast, Bowden now names them as Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle, and Namon O'Neal "Duck" Hoggle—who were each acquitted by an all-white jury—and a fourth man named as William Portwood, who worked as "muscle" for Cook. NPR got Portwood to admit his role. "All I did was kick one of them," he said of the assault on Reeb, a 38-year-old white man, and two other ministers who'd responded to Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to participate in civil rights marches. Portwood died soon after the interview at age 86.

One of the accused initially said Portwood had been with him on the night of the beating. But Portwood refused to be questioned and his wife later claimed he'd been helping his daughter with homework, according to FBI records. "I'm not proud of being up in the courtroom telling a lie," said Bowden. The statute of limitations for perjury and making false statements has long expired, notes NPR. "Of course, we knew who it was," she says. "We just didn't admit we knew." Sitting in the jury was "a man known to have escorted the leader of the American Nazi Party around town for a few days," NPR's Andrew Beck Grace explains in episode 2 of the podcast, per Newsweek. "Another had resigned from his church after it became integrated. And still, another was the brother of one of the primary defense witnesses." (More Civil Rights Movement stories.)

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