The civil rights cold case in the fourth season of WABE’s “Buried Truths” podcast is the most complex story journalist and educator Hank Klibanoff has ever studied.
It’s a case Klibanoff has tackled multiple times over 12 years of teaching his cold cases class at Emory University. Of the 190 students who have taken his class, 86 have helped him dig through the now 65-year-old story, which involved multiple deaths, blatant cover ups and witness and evidence tampering. The focal point is the death of James Brazier, a 31-year-old Black man in Terrell County, about 25 miles from Albany.
Now it’s been turned into a nine-episode podcast season co-written by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Richard Halicks. The season debuted last month and has been unspooling weekly.
“The Dawson police in the 1950s was just brutal,” said Klibanoff, Pultizer Prize-winning author of “The Race Beat” and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor who grew up in Alabama. “They weren’t a big police force but they carried a big stick. They used it against Black people.”
One particular cop Weyman B. Cherry was seen as a hero among whites in the county and a racist monster in the eyes of its Black citizens.
“He wasn’t trained to be a police officer but he carried himself like one,” Klibanoff said.
In 1958, when Jim Crow laws were very much still in force in this part of southwest Georgia, Cherry was particularly rankled by Brazier, who had recently purchased a new showy, chrome-packed 1958 Chevrolet Impala, bright blue with a white top. A Navy World War II veteran, Brazier and his wife worked multiple jobs to cobble together a comfortable middle-class existence with their four children.
But Brazier made more money than Cherry and this offended him to no end. So he targeted Brazier, pulling him over and beating him in 1957. In April of 1958, he stopped Brazier’s father and when Brazier tried to calm the situation, Cherry and fellow police officer Randolph McDonald instead beat Brazier on his front lawn. A badly injured Brazier was taken to jail and doctors did not properly treat him. Brazier died soon after from head trauma.
After Brazier’s death, his widow Hattie filed a federal civil lawsuit against the officers, alleging wrongful death. A key witness was soon found dead in jail under suspicious circumstances. False evidence was planted. Hattie lost her case and received no money from the government.
In the end, there was no justice for the Brazier family. Cherry, in fact, was promoted to police chief.
Over the past decade, Klibanoff and his Emory students spoke to existing family members of both Brazier and Cherry. He even talked to a witness to the beating of Brazier before she died.
This case, Klibanoff said, “has a reverberating effect to this day. It goes beyond the Brazier family. It had a very damaging effect on James Brazier Jr. [who was just ten years old when his dad was beaten in front of him and was shoved aside by Cherry when he tried to stop him.] Now we know it also had a powerful effect on the family of the police officer Cherry.”
Klibanoff said the case might never have been known outside of Terrell County if not for what he dubbed “an underground railroad of information breaking free into the larger world. Memos and pleas made it to Atlanta.” Civil rights groups and friendly press picked up on the story, including a page one story in The Washington Post written ironically by a man named Robert E. Lee Baker.
Sadly, Klibanoff said Dawson at the time had no Atticus Finch. “It’s like a ‘Twilight Zone’ story,” Klibanoff said. “All the white citizens were of one mind. The mob had taken control of the minds of people who otherwise saw themselves as good people, religious people, law-abiding, god-fearing people. Yet they sat on the sidelines and let this happen.”
He said he doesn’t need to make too many overt connections to recent events in the podcast. “People are going to get it,” he said.
WHERE TO FIND THE PODCAST
“Buried Truths,” available on WABE’s website and app as well as Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and other podcast platforms
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.