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Emory professor's new podcast unearths Georgia's 'Buried Truths'

In "Buried Truths," a new six-episode podcast, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Hank Klibanoff explores the case of Isaiah Nixon, an African American man killed for voting in Georgia in 1948. Photo courtesy WABE.

Editor's note: This article contains information that was reported by Emory Report and other media at the time, but will not be discussed until later episodes of the podcast.

A recent Emory College graduate was working as freelance producer at WABE Radio when she told a colleague about a wonderful course she had taken at Emory that was still on her mind: Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Hank Klibanoff. An idea sparked by that conversation has now grown into "Buried Truths," a new podcast series featuring Klibanoff and the project's work.

The class, which began in 2011, allows students to take an in-depth look at racially motivated murders that went unpunished in the Jim Crow South. It mixes journalism with history and African American studies, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Atlanta Magazine.

In fall 2015, students took a deep dive on the case of Isaiah Nixon, a 28-year-old farmer and father of six who dared to vote in Georgia’s Democratic Party primary in 1948, just two years after the U.S. Supreme court ruled Georgia’s all-white primaries unconstitutional.

Upon returning home from the polls, Nixon was killed in front of his wife and children. The perpetrators were brothers Jim and Johnnie Johnson, two white men who drove up to the Nixon house and coaxed Isaiah off his front porch to ask him two questions: “Had he voted?” And, “Who for?”

Then they shot him three times, one of them a fatal bullet to his abdomen. The brothers would be arrested, only to later be acquitted by an all-white jury.

Klibanoff, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book, “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” talks at length and in-depth about this important cold case in “Buried Truths,” a six-episode podcast produced by WABE Radio that began airing March 26.

"At that time in our history, an act of voting was an act of protest," says Klibanoff. "It was a right that was deprived him, and he paid the price for voting, and that is something I think we are all resolved to never let happen again." 

A pivotal time in Southern history

With “Buried Truths,” Klibanoff set out to explore the tragic death of Isaiah Nixon and also the South at a pivotal time in history. The podcast tells a story about elections, voting rights, intimidation, courage and violence that is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.

It chronicles the sacrifices black citizens in rural Georgia made to exercise their right, and the lengths that others — including those in power and those who lived down the street — would go to suppress it.

Georgia’s track-record of equal treatment for African Americans under the criminal justice system is murky at best. There was, in the case of the Johnson brothers, the “absolutely slam-dunk reliability in Georgia and throughout the South, to use the self-defense alibi whenever there was a white man was accused of killing a black man,” says Klibanoff. 

In court, the brothers claimed they were at Nixon’s house that day merely to hire him for a job, only to end up having to shoot him in self-defense. Despite the fact that the white sheriff even said the brothers were there to kill Nixon for voting, an all-white jury let one walk, then charges against the other were dropped.

“I think people will come away from this with an understanding of how the people of the South, in particular, were far too easy when it came to listening to demagogues who were leading them down the wrong road,” says Klibanoff. “Demagogues need someone to bully, and they picked black people.”

Eugene Talmadge, who Klibanoff talks about in “Buried Truths,” was a populist politician elected governor of Georgia four times by the mid-1940s, despite being a well-known segregationist with ties with the KKK. In his newspaper, The Statesman, Talmadge would write in all caps: “This is a white man’s country and we must keep it so.”

“I think we all know, but we don’t really know,” says Klibanoff. “We know there was discrimination, and I can imagine talking to friends in the South who are right-minded, conservative people, and they would say, ‘Yeah, we absolutely discriminated and that was an awful time,’ but they don’t really understand the trouble that the white supremacists would go to build in all these trap doors for blacks. To make it impossible for them to get out of their circumstances.”

Compelling questions

The Nixon family — including Dorothy Nixon Williams, who was six-years-old when she watched her father’s murder — fled Georgia for Florida not long after the killing. Williams, now 76, would grow up to marry and have children and become a psychiatric nurse.

The Nixons, like all of the families mentioned in “Buried Truths” who fled persecution in the South during that time, are “devoted to this nation,” says Klibanoff. “They are optimistic, positive, religious and hell bent on never, ever failing to vote.”

These families struggled, but as Klibanoff’s story will show, against all odds they came out the other side. After the family left Georgia, Isaiah Nixon’s grave was lost to a past of injustice. In 2015, three students from Emory’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, along with Klibanoff, found Nixon’s final resting place.

“One of the most uplifting discoveries of this whole process has been getting to know the Nixon family,” says Klibanoff. “The transformation of Dorothy Nixon, who carried so much anger for so many years, but as she said at her father’s gravesite, after she came to Emory and met the students and told the story, a lot of that anger went away. And when our students found her father’s gravesite? She said, ‘Now it’s all released.’”

Klibanoff says that he doesn’t have an agenda with the podcast beyond telling important, compelling stories, “but people are absolutely linking it to present times. Those stories that deal with police action and police overreaction, people immediately connect to current times. Some of them are eerily related.”

“Buried Truths” is a six-episode opportunity to connect with people outside of the walls of the classroom and allow them access to what Klibanoff’s students have — the chance to revisit Georgia’s sordid racial and judicial past and see all of the white men and women in the pages of history who sat on the sidelines, watching it all happen and doing nothing. 

“Who were we as a people that we allowed this to happen? That’s the question we always have to ask ourselves,” says Klibanoff. “That’s always worth asking. Can I be a bystander on this, or do I need to engage?”

The first episode of “Buried Truths” debuted on March 26 and new episodes will be released on Mondays. You can listen here and subscribe using your favorite podcast app.

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