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Podcast based on Emory class focuses new season on Ahmaud Arbery killing

Emory University

“Buried Truths,” the award-winning podcast based on Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project course, devotes its new season to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The seven-episode series, based on research by students and professor Hank Klibanoff, is now available.

By Emory University

Buried Truths,” the award-winning podcast based on the Emory College course that works to uncover the history of racially motivated murders in the Jim Crow South, is devoting its new season to a high-profile coastal Georgia killing earlier this year.  

The seven-episode series, produced by public radio station WABE and released on Sept. 16, focuses on the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed a 25-year-old Black man who was pursued by three armed white men near the coastal city of Brunswick. All Season 3 episodes were released at the same time.

Emory’s Pulitzer Prize-winning professor and journalist Hank Klibanoff, working with five Emory undergraduates, local editor Richard Halicks and the WABE production team, unearthed the centuries-long roots of the killing during a summer marked by national protests demanding a reckoning on race.

“What has happened in the past is still happening. It just looks a little different,” says Cameron Katz, a senior with a double major in history and creative writing, who helped research the ancestry of the men charged in Arbery’s death: Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan. 

“In some ways, that’s really discouraging,” she adds. “But looking at it through history really helps us have these hard conversations about why it took so long for the perpetrators to be arrested.”

“Going deeper into the history allows us to connect dots that people might not have known existed,” Klibanoff says. “Many of us are experiencing a deep and compelling need, driven in part by the moral outrage triggered by this case, to understand who we were, so we can better understand who we are today.”

Change of course for new season 

It is the first time the podcast “Buried Truths” takes aim at a current incident. Students in Klibanoff’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project course usually examine killings that took place in the modern civil rights era, roughly from 1945 to 1968.

“Buried Truths” won a Peabody Award and Robert F. Kennedy Award in 2019 for its first season, about a Black farmer, Isaiah Nixon, who was killed by two white men in 1948 for voting; and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award  for its second season, about the 1962 shooting of a Black teenager, A.C. Hall, by two white Macon police officers.

Last fall, Klibanoff’s class studied the 1958 killing of James Brazier, who worked three jobs to buy a new Chevrolet Impala for his family.

The car drew the ire of Dawson Police at a time of escalated racial tension during desegregation. Brazier died at age 31 from a police beating, after asking an officer to stop striking his father during a traffic stop for suspected drunken driving – as the men returned from a day at church.

Klibanoff and WABE senior producer Dave Barasoain traveled to Terrell County during Spring Break to interview people familiar with the Brazier case and pull additional records in the case, which was originally planned to be the focus of this season’s podcast. Shortly thereafter, the area shut down as a national hotspot of the emerging novel coronavirus.

Arbery’s death remained largely unknown at the time. But an article in The New York Times in April, followed by the release of a video of the February confrontation, drew national attention.

Klibanoff and his Emory College student team – Jake Busch, Hannah Charak, Jordan Flowers, Katz and Sage Mason – decided then to begin tracing the history behind Arbery’s death. Previous research by junior Rowan Thomas regarding the role of slave patrols in creating police forces in the rural South also guided their work.

For Flowers, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies, the parallels between Brazier and Arbery were clear. Like Arbery’s shooting, Brazier’s death went unreported in local newspapers but became national news once the Washington Post wrote about the case.

“The podcast is an opportunity to tell a more complete story, shedding new light on a case where, unfortunately, all perspectives originally weren’t included,” says Flowers, an aspiring journalist.

Among the new details: the family histories of both the McMichaels and Bryan, which include ancestors who enslaved people and fought for the Confederacy. They also uncovered Arbery’s link to one of the most well-known enslaved people in Georgia, Bilali Mohammed on Sapelo Island. Mohammed was the highly educated author of a manuscript on Islamic belief and rules discovered after his death in 1857.

“Both the Arberys and the McMichaels have deep coastal Georgia roots. So the violent history of the region, dating back hundreds of years, is still relevant today,” says Charak, a junior history major who examined the historical racial dynamics in Glynn County, where Brunswick is located, as well as the genealogical roots of the white men who chased Arbery. 

The history is especially helpful when putting the months’ lapse between the fatal incident and arrests into context. It is harder to explain why an attorney who knew the elder McMichaels leaked a graphic video that Bryan captured during the incident.

Mason, who graduated from Emory College in May with a degree in media studies and philosophy, politics and law, got that attorney on the phone to ask. His interview with Alan Tucker is included in the podcast. 

“There is such a schism between what they think the video shows and what everybody else sees,” Mason says. “The best thing that can happen is if people can learn from the podcast what cultural histories are playing out that allowed this tragedy to take place.”

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