The little-known story was unearthed by Emory professor Hank Klibanoff and students taking part in his Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. It is also the subject of the first season of WABE-FM's new six-episode podcast "Buried Truths," out March 26. Fresh episodes will come out every Monday.
Here's the first episode off Stitcher:
Wonya Lucas, president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, perked up when she heard about the project from a now former WABE digital producer Mary Claire Kelly. Kelly had worked extensively with Klibanoff on various cold cases as an Emory student and afterwards as a researcher and editor.
Lucas said these decades-old stories reminded her of issues still going on today regarding police brutality and efforts to restrict voter rights. "I was intrigued by the parallels between the past and the present," said Lucas, a Georgia native whose uncle is baseball legend Hank Aaron.
The clincher for her was Klibanoff himself, a former managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "The Race Beat," an examination of the role the news media played in shaping the civil rights movement. In 2011, he began teaching courses with classically trained historian Brett Gadsden in which students helped research civil rights cold cases.
Over six-plus years, more than 115 students have taken the class, many from the sciences. Klibanoff said colleagues have suggested he write a book but "that didn't set my heart on fire."
The idea of a podcast did.
"Hank is a great story teller," said Christine Dempsey, WABE's vice president for radio. "He's also extremely passionate about these stories."
"I loved the idea from the very beginning," Klibanoff said.
Last year, Klibanoff recorded two episodes that were tested before a focus group. The feedback was that it was trying too hard to be like crime mysteries such as "Serial" or "Up and Vanished."
"They felt we were wrong in trying to fit this into the true-crime genre, to create suspense in a whodunit fashion," Klibanoff said.
"We went back to the drawing board," Dempsey said.
Instead, they made it more of a "why-dunit." The focus group told them not to be afraid "to position this in the history genre," Klibanoff said. "History is and can be presented in a fascinating way. You can create suspense and drama. That was music to our ears."
Klibanoff, a print journalist by trade, said he also had to adjust his voice and sounds more conversational. "At first, I was doing Ted Knight," he said, chuckling, referencing the actor who played the self-aggrandizing anchor Ted Baxter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." "Ted Knight's voice has no place in this podcast."
As a podcast, they needed good audio, a challenge given that the case goes back to the late 1940s. But in the end, they compiled and sifted through 26 hours of audio, broken down into more than 255 "asset cards," elements that were arranged in story chapters, three or four per episode. During a Sunday in December, they spent an afternoon in a TV studio on 12 tables placing the assets in logical order.
They tracked down Nixon's last surviving daughter for a first-hand account. They found great archival audio of Eugene Talmadge and his son Herman Talmadge, both Georgia governors during this time period who vocalized their segregationist beliefs loud and clear on the stump.
"You're interlocking stories and history," said the podcast producer David Barasoain.
Klibanoff and three Emory students visited Nixon's cemetery in Montgomery County and made key discoveries to be unveiled during the podcast.
"It becomes a story of great humanity," Klibanoff said.
Ellie Studdard, an Emory senior, took part in the trip. She said working with Klibanoff shifted her career trajectory: instead of becoming a vet, she is now planning to attend law school focused on civil rights law and hopes to work for the FBI or Department of Justice. The FBI investigated the Nixon case and part of her research included the original FBI case files.
"I believe in the power of the federal government as a last stopgap for finding justice in cases like this," Studdard said.
For Kelly, who was the catalyst for the podcast, working on the civil rights cold cases "was a transformative experience. It redefined my identity as someone who grew up in the South and made me rethink everything I knew about the history of the region."
She hopes the podcast will help listeners feel the same way. "These stories, like those of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and countless others," she said, "deserve to be told and remembered."
"Buried Truths," available starting March 26 on iTunes, iHeartMedia, Stitcher, NPR and WABE, among others (Preview is available now)