Reckon Radio’s Unjustifiable” podcast series has won one of the nation’s top journalism prizes.

The 2021 national Edward R. Murrow Award for best podcast by a small digital news organization, awarded by the Radio Television Digital News Association, was announced Tuesday. 

“Unjustifiable,” co-hosted by Pulitzer-prize winning columnist John Archibald and Roy S. Johnson, a 2021 Pulitzer finalist, examined an overlooked moment of civil rights history in the heart of the South. It starts in 1979, when a white Birmingham police officer with a history of complaints from citizens shot and killed a 20-year-old Black woman named Bonita Carter.

Archibald grew up in Birmingham hearing a version of the story he later learned was inaccurate.

“We felt this story needed to be told. What we found out — that it has often been told wrong — made that even more important. We think the world needs to hear it,” Archibald said.

Johnson added: “It was honor to shed light on the police tragedy that took the life of Bonita Carter in Birmingham decades before Breonna Taylor and too many other Black women and men also lost their lives at the hands of the police across the nation. Her story is a painful reminder of why we must still strive for much-needed reform in policing and social justice. I’m grateful now that so many more know Bonita Carter’s name.”

 

In a six-episode series, “Unjustifiable” illustrates how Carter’s death created a wave of change in Birmingham which really swept away, in many ways, the old police department that had been built by Bull Connor. Eventually, the calls for justice in the case ushered into office Richard Arrington, the first Black mayor of Birmingham and one of the first African American mayors of a major Southern city. 

We knew that the story of Bonita Carter had important lessons that would resonate with modern audiences. We were honored for the chance to tell it and humbled by this honor. We hope it’s a signal to the rest of the country that there is a space for small, local podcasting teams to tell stories with national resonance,” said John Hammontree, the executive producer of the series and host of The Reckon Interview podcast.

“Unjustifiable” also examines a century of police killings in Birmingham that had been ruled “justifiable.” Archibald’s reporting identified 500 people killed by police in Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located, in the 20th century. 

Ryan L. Nave, Reckon’s editor-in-chief, said the Carter story  which came 16 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail and four decades before Black Lives Matter — was especially timely because its debut came amidst a national reckoning on racial justice and police violence following the killings of George Floyd and Taylor.

“Without these movements born in the South, in places like Birmingham and Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis and many other cities, there would not have been a Ferguson, Black Lives Matter or national dialogue about racism in our country. That’s why we had to tell the world about Bonita Carter,” Nave said.

Unjustifiable,” was produced by the award-winning team behind the Reckon Interview, and Greek Gods, including AL.com reporter Amy Yurkanin as well as Alabama Media Group’s Marsha Oglesby. Alexander Richey, a freelance journalist based in Birmingham, provided production, editing, sound design and original scoring on the project. 

The Murrow Awards, named after longtime broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, recognize journalism in the public service that sparks public dialogue. They are considered among the most respected awards in the world. Alabama Media Group also shared the 2021 Pulitzer prize in national reporting.