Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Eraby James M. McPherson
This is widely considered the best single-volume narrative of the Civil War. It sets the war firmly in the context of the question of slavery — its perpetuation and expansion.
The Half Has Never Been Toldby Edward E. Baptist
Edward E. Baptist tells the story of how slavery “moved and grew over time,” fueling the Industrial Revolution and building the American economy into a worldwide juggernaut. “Slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation,” Baptist writes, “not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make Civil War possible.” You cannot understand Selma — cannot understand the country — outside of the context of the wealth generated from the massive forced migration of enslaved people to the Deep South in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
The Legacy Of The Civil Warby Robert Penn Warren
Published in the early 1960s, in the heart of the civil rights movement, this is Robert Penn Warren’s distillation of the ways Americans — in the North and the South — have come to understand (and misunderstand) the meaning of the Civil War. Warren argues that if we cannot understand the Civil War, we cannot understand ourselves.
Killers Of The Dreamby Lillian Smith
This is a probing look at the psyche of white supremacy in midcentury America. The white America Lillian Smith describes is alienated, incoherent, sick. She reckons honestly and painfully with white Americans’ inability to forge a coherent identity or build a just society. This book really helped us understand the mindset that would create the conspiracy theory regarding Reeb’s death.
Black In Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr.by J.L. Chestnut and Julia Cass
J.L. Chestnut Jr.’s autobiography, co-written by Julia Cass, chronicles the struggle for civil rights in Selma. Chestnut was the first (and for a long time, only) black attorney in the city. His work on civil rights cases helped lay the groundwork for the movement there: It was Chestnut who helped Bernard Lafayette connect with local activists, Chestnut who talked politics with James Baldwin when he was in town during the early days of the campaign, and Chestnut who helped persuade the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma to lead the final push for voting rights in 1965.
Selma 1965by Chuck Fager
Chuck Fager was a white staffer for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and this play-by-play of the first months of 1965 is the go-to text to understand the tactics and goals of the Selma Campaign that culminated in the Selma to Montgomery march.
Racial Reckoningby Renee Romano
Renee Romano examines the motivations for reinvestigating civil rights cold cases. Why do it? Who are the investigations and trials really for? Romano argues that our notion of justice — putting a bad man behind bars — is too simplistic and hinders us from a deeper reckoning about our past. She says that approaching the problem by identifying individuals is insufficient. That, really, our criminal justice system is ill-equipped to grapple with the legacy of white supremacist violence. This book really informed our thinking on what it meant to find a fourth man.
In Praise Of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironiesby David Rieff
Collective memory is inherently ideological. What role should it play in the power struggles of the present? This book sparked the most debate among the members of our team.
The Last Time I Saw Selmaby Milton Mayer
We discovered this essay by accident and it remains one of our favorite things we’ve read about Selma. It was also our introduction to Milton Mayer, a beautiful, searing writer who also happened to be married for a while to the sister of Sol Tepper.
Letter From Selmaby Renata Adler
Renata Adler covered the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March for The New Yorker. Among others, she interviewed Charles Mauldin, then a student leader in the movement, who appears in Episode 5 of the podcast.
Archives of The Southern Courier newspaper
The opening lines of The Southern Courier’s coverage of the Reeb trial — a description of the jury foreman’s shaking hand as he read their verdict — capture what was at stake in that courthouse during those four days in December 1965. “They seemed to know they had been on trial for four days along with the defendants,” Edward M. Rudd, the reporter, writes.
Citizens Council ad
Dallas County Citizens Council was an all-white group of businessmen and civic leaders who opposed any form of integration in Alabama. The group, which included the mayor, several judges and the editor of the Selma Times-Journal, published this full-page ad in the Journal inviting readers to “Ask yourself an important question: What have I personally done to maintain segregation?” In the 1950s and ‘60s, these citizens councils were common all over the South. At the Dallas County Citizen Council’s first meeting, one of its leaders pledged to make it difficult, if not impossible, for any black person who advocated for desegregation to find and hold a job, get credit or get a mortgage.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Eulogy for Reeb
King’s eulogy at the memorial service for Reeb in Selma was a variation of a eulogy he had delivered at two previous services: one for the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and one for Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death in February 1965 was the spark for the march that would become Bloody Sunday.
President Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing what would become the Voting Rights Act
President Johnson delivered the speech to Congress the same day as Reeb’s memorial in Selma, invoking his death with the line, “One good man, a man of God, was killed.” He signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law five months later.
Sol Tepper’s letter
A few weeks after the trial for Reeb’s murder, Tepper, a leader of Selma’s all-white citizens council and an outspoken segregationist, distributed this seven-page letter promulgating the theory that Reeb was killed by the civil rights movement (seen here as part of the DOJ file). As a piece of propaganda, the letter is pretty incredible, a classic example of what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” We first encountered it when visiting the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma. At Confederate Monument Circle, we met one of the leaders of a group who had erected the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. When we told her we were working on a story about Reeb, she took us over to her car, popped her trunk and gave us a stack of pamphlets. Tepper’s letter was mixed in with revisionist Civil War propaganda.
The Paranoid Style In American Politicsby Richard Hofstadter
Speaking of Hofstadter, this classic essay explores the American penchant for conspiratorial thinking. Published in late 1964, just months before Tepper became public exhibit A for the paranoid style, it was inspired by the rise of Barry Goldwater, who, in the 1964 presidential race against LBJ, had carried only six states, all of them in the Southeast — except for his native Arizona. Goldwater’s strongest states were Mississippi and Alabama, where he won 70% of the vote. And out of Alabama’s 67 counties, Goldwater’s greatest margin of victory was in Dallas County and neighboring Wilcox County, where he received 90% of the ballots cast.
Hofstadter wrote that the conspiracy theorist of the day felt that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion … [Paranoid literature] produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.”