We’ve come a long way in this country when it comes to civil rights. Not as far as we’d like to have come by 2018, mind you, but a damn sight farther than we were in the 1960s. That said, there are still plenty of people fighting for a proper degree of civil rights in the United States and that fight has claimed plenty of lives along the way.
One of those lives, possibly one of the first to have been claimed in this decades’ old conflict, belonged to a Tennessee man who was doing what he could to encourage his fellow African Americans to make use of their God-given right to vote. Unfortunately, there were plenty in the 1940s who took umbrage with this.
It was a cool June evening in 1940 when they discovered the body of 32-year-old Elbert Williams, a native Brownsville resident and member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had been killed and whoever had done it had dumped his body in the Hatchie River, six miles from Brownsville, Tennessee.
Murder Most Foul
Not many were terribly surprised at the time of the discovery. Williams had been causing quite a stir in the area with his NAACP chapter and the locals were not too happy about it. It was easy for the Haywood County coroner to rule out any sort of accidental death. They titled the official cause of death to be “foul means by parties unknown.” They just needed to find out who’d done it.
As previously stated, Elbert Williams was a member of the Brownsville chapter of the NAACP, an organization that was developed as a way to ensure equal rights for people of color in a time when such rights were hardly the norm. Prior to his death, he and his fellow NAACP members were doing their best to fight for and ultimately register black voters.
The county coroner had also ordered that Williams be buried immediately following a brief cursory examination. No official autopsy was held. Theories about the manner of Williams’ murder were bandied about and all of them led back to the night of June 20th, the night he disappeared from the local jail and was never seen again.
On the evening of June 20, 1940, Williams was led from his home by a group of men, along with Brownsville police officer Tip Hunter, to the Brownsville city jail. There, he was allegedly locked up and interrogated about his work with the NAACP. His wife came out to the jail that same night to find him, but Williams was not there when she arrived.
Two months later, long after Williams had already been buried, Haywood County convened a special grand jury to investigate his death. The jury ruled that Williams’ death was a homicide by parties unknown. The next year, the Justice Department determined the death was also a violation of existing civil rights criminal statutes. Yet there was still a problem.
The First Martyr
Elbert Williams’ murder had been resigned to the stack of cold cases but his efforts on behalf of civil rights were not forgotten. The NAACP would coin Williams as “the first martyr of the NAACP.” He would not be their last. In 1963, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
Open Then Closed
Eventually, despite evidence gathered by then NAACP special counsel member Thurgood Marshall, federal officials closed their investigation. Marshall would later go on to become the U.S. first African-American Supreme Court Justice, but Elbert Williams’ death would continue to be a lingering, unsolved hate crime. Until very recently, that is.
Unmarked and Forgotten
The important thing to remember is that no one was ever charged in the case. In addition to that, Williams’ had been buried rather unceremoniously in an unmarked grave likely near the church cemetery. Almost 80 years later, a former district attorney has moved to re-open the case to find out what really happened.
Jim Emison retired from his position with the district attorney’s office some time ago. But that didn’t mean he was done fighting for justice. Having heard of the Williams’ case many years ago, he’s dedicated almost all of his time to trying to determine who killed the civil rights activist. Unfortunately, getting the local, state, and federal agencies involved to re-open the case has been difficult, to say the least.
Emison has spent the better part of the past five years obsessing over the case details and has accumulated binders full of information to finding any sort of relevant information previously ignored by law enforcement. Emison went through some trouble to obtain many of these documents, going as far as to procure them from the National Archives and local police.
Threats of Violence
The Brownsville police had been much less accommodating when he asked for the documents and Emison believes he knows why. At the time of Williams’ murder, they had been upset with the local NAACP branch for registering blacks to vote. This led many in the department to attempt to force NAACP members out of town via threats of violence.
One of Emison’s documents indicates that the federal government was aware of this. At the time, Wendell Berge had been the U.S. Assistant Attorney General and had written to U.S. District Attorney William Clanahan about the “obvious purpose” of the Brownsville police officers’ behavior. Their goal was to frighten the town’s black population and prevent them from voting.
The local effort against Williams and the NAACP might not have been isolated. In fact, in 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed that the FBI’s conduct and execution of its investigation into the murder had been purposely mismanaged. He even ordered an internal investigation of it to be sure. Clearly, the government knew it might be a conspiracy but ultimately did nothing.
Statute of Limitations
In February of 2017, former U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III wrote about the case in a letter he sent to the Williams family. He apologized but said that the investigation could not be re-opened because more than 75 years had passed, and therefore so too had the statute of limitations. Emison agrees that revisiting the case may be difficult without any potential living witness to interview, but he doesn’t think it’s impossible.
There is evidence that the federal government is on the verge of investigating many of these supposedly cold civil right cases. They even recently renewed the investigation into the 1955 murder of 14-year-old African-American boy Emmett Till. There’s even a bipartisan bill in the works for cases just like this.
The bill, which is the first of its kind in this country, will set up a hotline for cold case tips and a center for research of unsolved civil rights crimes in the state of Tennessee. The hope is that other states will follow suit and dedicate themselves to solving cold cases just like these. “It will start a trend, I hope. As Dr. King would say, ‘let the justice flow like a river, let it flow.’” says Emison.
“We owe it to ourselves to do that,” Emison continued while speaking to WMC5. “We cannot do all in 2018 that should have been done in 1940, but justice and historic truth demand that questions about the cause of Elbert Williams’ death and the identity of his killer(s) that should have been answered long ago be answered now if possible.”
Investigators assigned to the case will work with a University of Tennessee forensic scientist to look for Williams’ actual grave, examine his body properly, and reinter them with the honor and dignity befitting a civil rights hero afterward. The belief is also that some of the witnesses in the case might still be alive as well.
A Measure of Justice
Gary Brown, 28th Judicial District attorney made a statement about the soon-to-be-reopened case, stating. “We will do what we can. We believe the Williams’ family and this community will benefit from knowing as much of the truth as we can today determine and in that truth find a measure of justice.”