Uncovering History and Mystery: A Podcast Review of White Lies

September 12, 2019
Title: White Lies
Broadcaster: NPR
Narrators: Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley
Start Date: May 6, 2019
End Date: June 25, 2019

NPR’s podcast White Lies starts off in a fairly familiar format. Two reporters head to the American south with a singular mission: to dig up information on an unsolved murder—information that has been buried by decades of history, obfuscation, and (of course) lies.

This recently concluded podcast (hosted by journalists Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley) journeys down to Selma, Alabama, and concerns itself with the unsolved murder of the Reverend James Reeb. Reeb was a white Unitarian pastor who, upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to the clergy of America to join the civil rights movement in Alabama, left his family in Washington, D.C. and traveled to Selma in the summer of 1965. Days after he arrived there, he was struck over the head and died later that evening. His murder galvanized the nation and provided a wide base of support to the civil rights movement.

It also was a murder that remained unsolved. Until now…

For those of you who have been podcast-raised on shows like Serial and S-town, you will not be disappointed with White Lies. There are plenty of the same tropes and intriguing mysteries that we as podcast consumers have grown accustomed to in a true crime series. The details of Reeb’s murder are locked away in storage sheds, back closets, and—in some cases—90-year-old humans who were there when it happened. Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley weave a slowly unfolding narrative of their investigation that hops back and forth between the 1960’s and the modern day, guiding their listeners on a long forgotten “who-dunnit” trail that keeps their audience raptly engaged throughout.

In addition to its stellar execution of the true crime format, there are two unique qualities in this podcast that help White Lies to stand out and break through some of the stereotypical tropes of the true-crime podcast as we have come to know it.

First of all, it is worth noting that Grace and Brantley are both born and raised in Alabama. This podcast concerns itself with a covered-up murder in their home state that happened in a time when many reprehensible things were done within the state lines of Alabama. Grace and Brantley’s penitential-yet-proud perspective on Alabama creates a fascinating dynamic for this podcast. Throughout the story, their fervor for the truth and dogged determination to bring the story to light counterbalances the often hesitant and sometimes outright aggressive responses of some of the residents of Selma. There are those whose belief is that the past should stay in the past, contributing to the reason the truth remained hidden for so many years.

The second unique aspect of this podcast is that while it sits in the True Crime section of Apple Podcasts (or a similar app) its true strength lies in being a historical podcast. The information about the people around the Murder of James Reeb exists, and (SPOILERS) although it took them a while to prove it, Grace and Brantley were able to figure out what happened. While they do a decent job at keeping us in the dark for as long as they can, about halfway through the seven episodes you feel a lull in the intrigue. Much of the mystery has pointed to one person/group and it feels like the hunt is coming to an end.

However, it is at this point that the podcast takes a turn and educates its listeners about the events of the past. This was the truly valuable aspect of the podcast for me. I knew very little about the events of the summer in 1965 (other than from history books and films like Selma) prior to listening to this podcast. I went into it blind, not knowing what led to the murder of James Reeb. I am not sure I had ever heard his name before. Thankfully, White Lies spends a good amount of time just laying out the events and timeline of the days around Reeb’s death. It introduces us to the man himself and to the culture of Selma at the time, providing a crucial background to understanding the evidence presented to confirm his murderer.

So, should you listen to this podcast? After all, a good deal of time has passed since the events of the murder—people have grown old, some have died, and many have moved on from the horrifying events of that day. If you approach this podcast wanting to consume a mystery-style, true-crime series, you may well find yourself asking yourself a question similar to the reluctant citizens of Selma: “What good can it possibly do to be digging up this information?”

Yes, you should listen to this podcast. Not only is White Lies an enjoyable listening experience, but it also does the good work of educating its listeners about historical events. It grapples with the importance of remembering our past, so that our future can be better. It claims that although it might be painful to dig up old incidents and it might be filled with things we wish we could sweep away under the carpet, it is only through remembering that we can hope to move on.

Additionally, White Lies draws our attention to the fact that while we have made progress as a nation when it comes to civil rights, we still have a long way to go. At one point, the podcast plays the audio from Jim Reeb’s final sermon in which he says,

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 (White Lies).

The podcast White Lies is part of that struggle. The work that Grace and Brantley did invites others to see the truth, and by doing so encourages listeners to be contemplative of the past and vigilant for the future. It is well worth your time, and I hope you give it a listen.

About the Author
  • Jackson Nickolay is originally from the North Woods of Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior, but has lived in Holland, Michigan for the last 6 years. He completed a Master of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary with a focus on worship design. He has a passion for living into the dual vocation of an artist and a minister and finds application for these callings in worship music, embodied scripture, theatre, writing, and liturgical arts. He is married to Hannah Barker Nickolay who also graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Western Theological Seminary. Together with some close friends they run a small liturgical arts company called Wayfolk Arts, which focuses on crafting liturgies, scripture enactments, prayers, songs, and blessings for small and large ecclesial communities. Jackson is also the co-host and co-founding member of the Podcast No Script, a weekly podcast which centers on unscripted conversations about theatre's best scripts.

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