Emory professor's podcast wins Peabody Award for exploring racially motivated crimes from Georgia's civil rights era
The Isaiah Nixon case was the subject of the first season of “Buried Truths,” a podcast hosted by Emory professor Hank Klibanoff and produced by Atlanta NPR station WABE.
The second season, also based on research by Klibanoff and Emory students, focuses on A.C. Hall, a black teen killed by police in 1962.
Listen to both here.
In September 1948, two white men came calling at Isaiah Nixon’s home. When the black man confirmed that he had indeed voted in that day’s primary election, they shot him.
In September 2017, the nephew of the men who fired those shots stood on the front step of Nixon’s daughter’s home, for a very different reason.
Keith Johnson was there to apologize to Dorothy Nixon Williams for what she had watched his uncles do almost 70 years ago.
“May I give you a hug?” Johnson tentatively asked.
“Sure,” Williams gently replied.
That unlikely moment of reconciliation came about after extensive work from Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, an undergraduate class led by professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Hank Klibanoff.
Students in the class initially set out to learn more about Nixon’s death and the many factors that let the men who shot him, like many other white people who killed black fellow citizens, go unpunished in the Jim Crow South.
Instead, they solved a mystery that spanned decades and helped bring closure to a woman who had carried anger over her father’s death for most of her life.
A PODCAST AND A PEABODY
“Buried Truths,” an acclaimed podcast led by Klibanoff and produced by Atlanta NPR station WABE, is based on the work of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.
The first season, which debuted last spring, took an in-depth look at the Nixon case, including recording the remarkable meeting between Dorothy Nixon Williams and Keith Johnson, as well as recounting a discovery by Emory students that changed the lives of both Williams and at least one student in the class.
On Tuesday, the first season of “Buried Truths” was announced as a winner of a 2018 Peabody Award for Radio/Podcast, among the most prestigious awards in broadcast and digital media.
“With intensive research of FBI documents, microfilm of archival newspapers, medical records, NAACP reports, and primary evidence held in private collections, the podcast has the appeal of the ‘true crime’ genre but constantly strives for deeper historical understanding,” the Peabody Awards notes.
Overall, there were 60 nominees and 30 winners for this year’s Peabody Awards, selected unanimously from about 1,300 entries.
“We first heard of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project through Mary Claire Kelly, an Emory graduate who was an alumna of the class,” says Wonya Lucas, president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta. “Hank’s passion for civil rights and exposing the truth was very apparent so we knew we wanted to work with him. The stories he explores were the perfect fit for a podcast from WABE.”
Klibanoff credits the success of the podcast to all of those who have contributed to both the show and the cold cases project — from producers to students to former Emory professor Brett Gadsden, who initially co-taught the class with him.
“If ever there was an award for an entire village, this is it,” Klibanoff says. “Certainly I’ve been fortunate beyond words to work with the professionals at WABE, particularly the producer without parallel, Dave Barasoain; executive producers Je-Anne Berry and Christine Dempsey; and the visionary WABE president and CEO, Wonya Lucas.
“But without the open-minded, curious and resolute 130 students in the Emory classes that professor Brett Gadsden and I have taught, this award — and the podcast, 'Buried Truths,' itself — would not have been possible,” he continues.
“From the beginning in 2011, Emory College and Emory University saw the point and the purpose of this course and have been steadfast supporters of it ever since; for that, I am filled with gratitude.”
VIDEO FEATURE: “THE SEARCH ISAIAH NIXON”
The video below takes an in-depth look at Emory students' work on the Isaiah Nixon case, the subject of the Peabody Award-winning first season of “Buried Truths.”
Watch to see the moment when Emory students found Nixon's missing grave and the day they returned with his daughter as she visited her father's final resting place for the first time in more than 60 years.
LOST AND FOUND
The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project launched at Emory in 2011 and is offered each fall, with each class focusing on a different case.
“I think it’s important for students to see in tangible ways, through exposure to primary evidence, that they are living a history today that can be better understood and explained by what they learn about yesterday,” Klibanoff says.
“We’re very clear that our pursuit is not for the who-done-it, but for the historical why,” he explains. “What explains our past behavior? And how much does the answer to that question explain our current conduct?”
The Nixon case, because of its focus on the struggle for voting rights, voter suppression, and the history of all-white primaries and all-white juries in Georgia, was chosen for the fall 2015 semester as the U.S. was entering the 2016 presidential campaign.
Dorothy Nixon Williams was just six years old when her father dared to vote in the 1948 Democratic Primary in Montgomery County, Georgia — only the second held since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled all-white primaries unconstitutional — and when Jim A. Johnson and Johnnie Johnson shot him in front of his farmhouse as his family watched.
Nixon died two days later and was buried in the Old Salem Cemetery, down a dirt road outside of the town of Uvalda. His wife, mother and six children fled to Jacksonville, Florida, soon thereafter, but as the years passed, no one could locate his grave in the small rural cemetery.
Unlike in many racially motivated cases of the era, Nixon’s assailants were arrested. The Johnson brothers were charged with murder and accessory to murder, and the case drew attention from the NAACP, the FBI and the national press.
But the attention couldn’t overcome the bias. The duo claimed they had gone to Nixon’s house to hire him for work, then shot him in self-defense, although the white sheriff said they killed him for voting. Jim Johnson was easily acquitted by the all-white jury, and charges against his brother were dropped.
Nixon’s family had no recourse and could only try to rebuild their lives. A studious child, Dorothy Nixon Williams struggled with bouts of anger and anxiety, but took refuge in the love of her family, especially her grandmother, and went on to become a psychiatric nurse with a husband and children of her own.
In 2015, she got a phone call. A class at Emory University in Atlanta was studying her father’s case. Would she be willing to talk with the students?
She agreed, and Klibanoff arranged for her to fly to Atlanta that fall to visit with students in the class.
That trip, of course, led to so much more. When Klibanoff and several members of his class visited the rural cemetery where Nixon was believed to be buried, student Ellie Studdard left the group to walk up and down the rows of graves, then glimpsed a hand-lettered concrete slab at the end of a row, partially hidden under dirt and leaves: Nixon's long-lost grave marker.
Williams invited the students to come with her in January 2016 when she visited the grave for the first time. She then continued to be involved with the cold cases project through the creation of the “Buried Truths” podcast, leading to her meeting with Keith Johnson and his apology for what his family members did to hers.
“I am so happy that they selected my father to do all the work that they did,” Williams told the audience at a “Buried Truths” live event last fall.
“It’s out of my heart, the forgiveness is there, and I just think about how I feel that it was meant to be, that Daddy wasn’t forgotten and he is being used to help a lot of people that had not thought about some of the pain that persons like me have been through.”
UNCOVERING MORE 'BURIED TRUTHS'
The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project continues, as does the “Buried Truths” podcast.
Last fall, Klibanoff and his students examined the case of A.C. Hall, an African American teen who was shot by police in Macon, Georgia, in 1962 after he was mistakenly identified as stealing a gun.
Through Hall’s story, the class explored police privilege, racial conditioning, community activism and more.
They visited Macon to retrace Hall's last night and learned from guest speakers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who serves as Emory University Distinguished Professor and was running his first political campaign in Georgia when Hall was killed; and civil rights attorney Howard Moore Jr., who worked on the case and whose papers are now housed in Emory's Rose Library.
Their work formed the backbone of the second season of “Buried Truths,” which launched in February and features Klibanoff and several students.
The podcast has received more than one million downloads and is available on all major podcast players, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, NPR One and Stitcher.
The next “Buried Truths” live event is scheduled for Tuesday, May 21, at 7 p.m. at the Morehouse School of Medicine Auditorium, featuring Klibanoff, Moore and other special guests discussing the A.C. Hall case. Tickets are available here.
ABOUT THIS STORY
Video: Stephen Nowland, Corey Broman-Fulks and Kay Hinton, featuring video clips courtesy of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project
Writing: Laura Douglas-Brown
Graphic design: Elizabeth Hautau Karp
Images: Photos from Nixon's grave by Kay Hinton; Klibanoff class photo by Stephen Nowland; “Buried Truths" photos courtesy WABE; historical documents and photos courtesy of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project