It was the story that shook the nation. A Black man went for a run in a neighborhood he was not welcome in because of the color of his skin. A white man shot him three times.
On Sept. 16, Emory Professor of Practice and Pulitzer-Prize winner Hank Klibanoff released the third season of his podcast, “Buried Truths.” In the new season, Klibanoff takes a deep dive into the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and its implications for race relations in Georgia today. The podcast, produced by Atlanta’s NPR radio station WABE, won a Peabody Award in 2018 and in its past seasons explored the racially-motivated killings of Isaiah Nixon and A.C. Hall.
“I think a lot of [the podcast’s success] is due to the way Professor Klibanoff has researched and told these stories,” said Sage Mason (18Ox, 20C), one of the five students who worked on this season of the podcast. “It’s really resonated with people because of the ways we’re seeing that these cold cases that happened in the past are not so foreign from the realities we see in America today.”
The podcast is part of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, an undergraduate class Klibanoff teaches at Emory. The project seeks to conduct historical and journalistic research about previously unsolved racially-motivated killings in Georgia. Five students from the class joined Klibanoff this summer to gather information about the Arbery case.
“Jake, Hannah, Jordan, Cameron and Sage generated great ideas, conducted terrific research and provided wise counsel on the framing and presentation of the story,” Klibanoff wrote in a Sept. 18 email to the Wheel. “Each one made distinctive discoveries, one after another, which they submitted to me in written reports and put on a shared drive that grew more and more impressive in its depth every week. They’re the heart and soul of this season.”
When the team first began planning for the season over spring break, they intended to cover the cold case of James Brazier. The 1958 case occurred in Terrell County and involved the killing of a 31-year-old Black man at the hands of the police. However, due to a surge of COVID-19 cases in the county, they decided to halt production. In April, when news of Arbery’s death made national headlines, Klibanoff knew he had to cover the story. While his class generally covers cold cases between 1945 and 1968, Klibanoff made an exception.
“I said, ‘How can I not do that?’” Klibanoff explained. “I was thinking that it doesn’t fit into the modern Civil Rights period, but then I realized no one cares about that but me. It’s just a small little conceit.”
Klibanoff initially planned to complete the story in one or two episodes, connecting it to past seasons and not delving into the details of the case. But students from the Brazier case, whose summer plans had gone awry due to COVID-19, were eager to research the Arbery case. With a full team, they got to work, examining race relations in Glynn County and the history of the Georgia coast.
“We started looking into the white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery and were astonished by what we were finding about their history,” Klibanoff said in an interview with the Wheel. “Suddenly, I realized we had so much material, and so it just metastasized into a seven-episode season.”
Some of the students working on the project wanted to travel to Brunswick, Georgia to see the city where Arbery died and get a feel for the community. Rising COVID-19 cases in the area, however, barred this possibility.
“I would love to just go down there and walk around and talk to people,” Jordan Flowers (21C) said. “But, we obviously have to be cautious to protect ourselves and the people we live with and the people we work with. It was something unforeseen and made part of it a little more difficult. At the same time, I think that because of COVID, people were more at home and willing to participate in some ways, so that could have been helpful.”
The team researched from May until the end of July, compiling data and combing through records to find an explanation of what led to the tragic killing.
“We’re telling human stories,” Jake Busch (22C) said. “We’re telling stories about people who have lost loved ones, we’re talking about people who have lost their lives, we’re talking about people who reflect the history of Georgia and our country.”
The team hopes the podcast reignites conversation and interest around what led to Arbery’s death.
“Change has to happen with public pressure,” Cameron Katz (21C) said. “There was a lot more fervor around the Ahmaud Arbery case once the public was informed. The problem with activism is that people get fatigued really easily, but you have to keep putting pressure.”
Arbery’s three killers, Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan, were indicted on murder charges by a Georgia Grand Jury on June 24. They could face life sentences in jail without parole. Despite his familiarity with myriad cold cases that never received justice, Klibanoff believes Arbery’s case may end differently.
“I do have hope that there can be justice for Ahmaud’s family,” Klibanoff said. “As much as I disparage the resonance similarities between the cases that we’ve studied from the 40s and the 50s and the 60s and this case in 2020, I do say at the end that what is very different is that this case appears like it’s headed for trial.”
Klibanoff hopes listeners not only understand the injustice surrounding Arbery’s killing, but also attempt to seek answers.
“There are answers to our questions,” Klibanoff said. “There are ways to find things out if you just keep going and keep digging and asking the question, ‘But why?’”
Editor’s Note: Klibanoff is the Wheel’s faculty adviser. He was not involved in the composition of or editing of this article.