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Perspective | Magazine

From a 1965 murder trial, lessons for today

A chapter closes on a Selma, Alabama, murder, but the work of the Civil Rights movement is far from done.

Defendants William Hoggle (left) and Namon “Duck” Hoggle (right) with their father after their acquittal.
associated press/file
Defendants William Hoggle (left) and Namon “Duck” Hoggle (right) with their father after their acquittal.
Globe File
James Reeb’s murder in 1965 catalyzed passage of the Voting Rights Act that summer.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. A tearful confession? A look of indisputable guilt? Some evidence of atonement for the lives he once stood accused of shattering? I think I knew deep down that there was little chance of any of that. Still, I wanted to try. And so one day in 2011, I went looking for Namon O’Neal “Duck” Hoggle in Selma, Alabama.

Hoggle was one of three men charged in the fatal sidewalk beating of James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, in March 1965. Devoted to civil rights, Reeb, a 38-year-old father of four, had gone to Selma to aid the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in fighting the disenfranchisement of black voters. Reeb’s murder catalyzed passage of the Voting Rights Act that summer.

In all of 97 minutes, Hoggle, his brother, and a third man were acquitted by an all-white jury, in a trial the FBI characterized at the time as fundamentally flawed. When I arrived in Selma many years later to write about Reeb’s life, Hoggle was the only one still alive. He ran Bama Motors, a small car dealership blocks from where Reeb was attacked. In the eyes of the law, Hoggle was living as an innocent man.

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I parked on a patch of gravel and crossed the street to the dealership. I walked through a gate and into a small office on the lot. Hoggle wasn’t there, I was told. I’ll come back, I said. But he wasn’t around when I returned. I left my card and a message with a woman who looked thrilled to see me. I tried calling later, too. They were futile gestures. I knew I’d never hear from him.

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I thought of that day recently when I learned of Hoggle’s death, on August 30, at age 81. Evidently he died as a respected local businessman. The county sheriff and a local judge served as pallbearers. The death notice celebrated Hoggle’s special relationship with customers. Mourners, in condolences posted online, cited his good heart and friendship. He was “one who would help anyone he could,” a woman wrote.

Maybe that’s true. Maybe he did live out his life with meaning and purpose. But what a privilege it was to live out one’s life. James Reeb and his family didn’t get that privilege. His children lost their father. His wife, Marie, lost her husband. The nation lost an eloquent voice for justice.

“It was his life’s purpose,” Reeb’s 57-year-old daughter, Anne, told me recently.

In death, James Reeb achieved what his killers tried in vain to prevent: the right of African-American voters to have a say in their representation in city council chambers, state houses, the halls of Congress, and the White House. It was a colossal accomplishment, one Reeb will forever share with many other activists who gave their lives to the cause.

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And yet here we are in 2016. The cause remains. The Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act. A number of states — for nakedly political reasons — have curtailed voting access. The Black Lives Matter movement has exposed a gulf of mistrust between citizens and police charged to protect them. Racism and prejudice have flourished in a grotesque campaign for president.

How vital, then, that we pause at moments like this to measure the arc: how far we’ve traveled, and how imperfect that journey has been. How vital it is to remember not only the heroes of yesterday but also those who fought against them, so that we may recognize, in ourselves, their descendants.

Was justice ever likely in Reeb’s murder? No. Nor was it likely in countless other unsolved murders from the civil rights era. Duck Hoggle’s death nonetheless delivers a certain finality.

In 1990, when Anne Reeb was in Selma for the 25th anniversary of the clashes and marches of 1965, she still burned with resentment. She envisioned stalking into Bama Motors and confronting Hoggle herself. “I remember thinking how I would tell him how he changed the lives of our family forever,” she says. But she never went — out of respect, Anne says, for her mother, who didn’t want her to. Since then, the family’s thinking has evolved.

“We haven’t spent too much time with anger on our souls,” she says. “We’ve traveled way beyond that and continue on the journey of love and support for social change and justice and freedom.”

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Were James Reeb alive today, his daughter believes, he’d still be out there on the vanguard, active in the civil rights struggles of the LGBT community.

The city of Selma a few years back formally renamed the street where Hoggle’s dealership sits. For years, it was Jeff Davis Avenue, honoring the president of the Confederacy. Now it’s known as J.L. Chestnut Jr. Boulevard, after a prominent civil rights leader and the city’s first black lawyer.

We can evolve. We can change. We can learn. We can bend the arc another few degrees. We can swap one street sign for another. But we cannot afford to wipe the slate clean.

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at scott.helman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @swhelman.