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The Hatchie, six miles south of Brownsville, from which Elbert Williams's corpse was pulled Sunday June 23, 1940.
P. O. Box 13
Alamo, Tennessee 38001
ELBERT WILLIAMS:FIRST TO DIE
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Why is Elbert Williams important to civil rights history?
Elbert Williams was the first known NAACP official in the nation killed for his civil rights work. Elbert Williams was a charter member of the Brownsville, Tennessee, NAACP Branch, formed in 1939 for the purpose of regaining the right to vote. On June 20, 1940, Williams was overheard planning an NAACP meeting and was reported to police. That night police kidnapped Elbert Williams from his home, locked him up, interrogated him about the NAACP, and he was never again seen alive. Later his body was pulled from the Hatchie River and buried immediately in an unmarked grave.
Under NAACP pressure the United States Department of Justice opened an investigation, ordered the US Attorney to seek an indictment, then mysteriously reversed its decision and closed the case for “lack of sufficient evidence”. Thurgood Marshall, Special Counsel for the NAACP was very critical of the DOJ’s failure to prosecute but was unable to get the investigation reopened.
In 1963, at the funeral of Medgar Evers, Roy Wilkins recognized Elbert Williams as a “pioneer fighter” for civil rights.
How did you get interested in the Elbert Williams murder?
In late 2011, when I first came across the story of Elbert Williams’s murder I was startled because I had lived most of my life within twenty miles of Brownsville but had never heard of Elbert Williams. I called two friends active in civil rights and neither of them had heard the story. An important piece of civil rights history, right here in my backyard, had been virtually forgotten. I decided that Elbert William’s story must be told, and this important history preserved.
Have you found new evidence?
Yes. in several critical areas. I believe I am the first to obtain un-redacted copies of the FBI and the United States Department of Justice case files, which name names, and contain the full text of documents, including the FBI’s reports of witness interviews.
When Williams’s body was pulled from the Hatchie River, the local Coroner ordered an immediate burial, with neither autopsy nor visual medical examination, although Williams’s widow said she saw in his chest two holes that to her looked like bullet holes. No agency of law enforcement, State or Federal attempted to determine the cause of Elbert Williams’s death, and his body and the evidence of murder it contained were buried in an unmarked grave the same day the body was pulled from the river. At least two persons, still living, but never interviewed by the FBI, saw the body at the river.
For the first time, a team of experts with whom I am working is attempting to locate Elbert Williams’s unmarked grave, and to determine the cause of his death. A DNA match will enable Elbert Wiliams’s remains to be identified with certainty. By applying state of the art scientific analysis it is hoped to locate Elbert Williams’s grave, determine the cause of his death, and subject any bullets to ballistics analysis to identify the firearm that fired the fatal round. After analysis Elbert Williams’s remains must be reinterred in a permanently marked grave with the honor befitting a civil rights hero.
Why should the United States Department of Justice reopen its investigation?
The FBI botched the original investigation, and the closure of the Elbert Williams murder investigation in 1942 is a stain on the honor of the Justice Department that it now has an opportunity to remove. The Department cannot explain how the evidence of the case suddenly and mysteriously morphed from being a clear violation of Federal Law that should be prosecuted, to being insufficient for a prosecution. A political reason is highly suspected. Clear evidence of kidnapping and murder was ignored. Thurgood Marshall tried unsuccessfully in 1942 to get the case reopened. The time has come to honor Justice Marshall’s request..
The premature closure of the case for the wrong reason in 1942 is a symbol of injustice and white supremacy by the federal government itself that can only be removed by a through and complete investigation of Elbert Williams murder
Does a murderer still live? We don’t know. Without reopening the case and completing the investigation we will never know. Justice for a killer should not bear an expiration date. It is time to complete the investigation and follow the evidence wherever it leads.
The Justice Department was quite late in launching a thorough investigation of the murder of Medgar Evers, whose remains were exhumed 28 years after he was slain. Elbert Williams is owed no less.
Elbert Williams has been subjected to seventy-five years of injustice, and now is the time to make that right.
What aspects of the Elbert Williams murder are most troubling?
The law, that should always be an instrument of justice was perverted, stood on its head, and turned into an instrument of oppression. No one cared enough to act. A killer or killers were given a free pass.
Government at all levels simply ignored kidnapping and murder and utterly refused to pursue justice.
When I began my work, I was horrified by the seeming aberration of a singular use of violence against Elbert Williams and his colleagues, but I soon realized that the real horror of what happened was not its uniqueness but its commonality. It was the way white supremacists routinely dealt with African Americans in many parts of the South. A true form of state terrorism.
Give Us A Glimpse of Elbert Williams First To Die
The story of Elbert Williams’s murder and the Brownsville terror of the summer of 1940 is as American as the Fourth of July, and as Southern as Jim Crow. The head-on collision of African American aspiration to regain the right to vote with white supremacist determination to preserve white political and economic hegemony by any means necessary produced a summer of threats, kidnapping, terror, and murder.
Before the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman & Mickey Schwerner, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and even Harry T. and Harriett Moore in 1951, Elbert Williams became the first known NAACP member killed for his civil rights activity.
Elbert Williams First to Die begins in Brownsville, Haywood County, Tennessee, and will detail the formation of the Brownsville NAACP Branch in 1939 and its effort to regain the right to vote.
The story of the Brownsville terror of the summer of 1940 culminating in Elbert William’s murder, will be told, and the characters at its heart revealed.
For the first time, the FBI’s shameful “investigation” will be dissected using its own un-redacted records, and the Justice Department’s mysterious about face and closure of the case without a prosecution will be critically examined using, for the first time, the Department’s own un-redacted case file.
The NAACP’s role, particularly the efforts of Walter White and Thurgood Marshall, will be placed front and center, and
the contemporary effort to obtain justice for Elbert Williams will be chronicled.
Elbert Williams First to Die will for the first time examine in-depth, a historically important civil rights murder, that ominously portended the carnage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the failure of government at every level to stand fast for justice.
If Elbert Williams’s murderers had been prosecuted might the slaughter to come twenty years later have been avoided?
Jim Emison, a renowned, award-winning, courtroom lawyer of forty-three years, retired at the end of 2011, and has been investigating the June 20, 1940, civil rights cold case murder of NAACP member Elbert Williams, in Brownsville, Tennessee. Jim has obtained an official State of Tennessee historical marker honoring Elbert Williams, and was instrumental in bringing about the memorial service on the 75th anniversary of Elbert Williams’s death. A team of experts assembled by Jim is working to locate Elbert Williams’s unmarked grave, and Jim hopes to persuade the United States Department of Justice to reopen its investigation into Elbert Williams’s death. Jim is a native of Alamo, Tennessee, and with Elizabeth, his wife of 46 years, lives there today. Jim is hard at work on ELBERT WILLIAMS, FIRST TO DIE, and hopes to be published in 2016.
An Associated Press article on Jim, by Lucas L Johnson II, titled, Attorney Driven to Solve 1940 Slaying of NAACP Activist, has been published worldwide. To read the article as it appeared in US News & World Report click the link below.