Today was a historic moment for our nation. Garry Brown, Tennessee District Attorney, announced that he has re-opened the investigation into the 1940 murder of whom some have identified as the “first martyr of the civil rights movement”, Elbert Williams.
Mr. Elbert Williams was a bright, outspoken 31-year-old family-oriented man in the predominantly black community of Haywood County, Tennessee. He was also a charter member of Brownsville’s chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mr. Williams was also a devoted husband, dedicated employee, and cherished son of Albert and Mary and brother to Willie, Ruby, and my great-grandmother, Julie. He was also a hero.
After Mr. Williams was abducted from his home by a uniformed police officer and several other prominent white men, he was taken in for questioning and released. On the third day, two fishermen found his body in the Tallahatchie River. Jim Emison, the cold-case investigative lawyer who helped revive this case a few years ago, believes this was all a part of the strategy to shush black folks into secondary citizenship for decades.
“The murder was the second to last step in the campaign to destroy the NAACP branch in Brownsville. The last step”, Emison says, “was pulling the body out of the river on Sunday and displaying it on the river bank to make an impression and wanted black people to know: ‘this is what happens if you try to vote.’ The NAACP branch was destroyed and wasn’t reconstituted until 1961, giving way to 20 more years of white rule.”
The Department of Justice initially ordered the case be presented to a federal grand jury, then mysteriously reversed itself and closed the case in early 1942. The legendary attorney, Thurgood Marshall, came down to Brownsville but could not penetrate the deep layers of injustice. In 2017, after a request from Mr. Emison and some of our family members, a U.S. attorney in Memphis declined to re-open the investigation.
I guess that’s why I was pleasantly shocked to find out today that the so-called investigation would be reopened after 78 years. I don’t know if I would call what has happened over the past few years “justice”, but it’s definitely a start!
“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,” Brown said in a statement. “We will do what we can.”