By Frederick H. Lowe
Elbert Williams, the first NAACP official murdered for attempting to restore voting rights for African-American residents of majority black Hayward County, Tennessee, will be honored with the installation of a state-historical marker in downtown Brownsville, Tennessee, 75 years after his mutilated body was found floating in the Hatchie River.
The installation of the historical marker, inscribed with the words that Williams was the victim of a “white terror campaign,” will be part of a memorial service scheduled for June 20th at the Haywood County High School in Brownsville, where Williams lived.
A true hero
“If there was a Mount Rushmore for civil rights leaders, there would be Dr. King, Medgar Evers and Elbert Williams, said John Ashworth, chairman of the Elbert Williams Memorial Commemoration Committee.”He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was doing his work. In 1963 at the memorial service for Medgar Evers, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, called Williams a martyr for the civil rights movement.”
The ceremony is also being held to pressure the Department of Justice to reopen Williams’ murder investigation, which was botched by the F.B.I., the DOJ and ignored by local cops who took Williams from his home the last time he was seen alive. The murder investigation was ignored by the DOJ because the U.S. had entered World War 2.
Brownsville police officers, Charles Read and Tip Hunter, and Ed Lee, manager of a Coca Cola Bottling Co. and former president of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, took Williams from his home on June 20, 1940, said Jim Emison, a member of Elbert Williams Memorial Commemoration Committee and author of the forthcoming book about Williams that has the working title of “Elbert Williams: First To Die.” The 32-year-old Williams had been in the river three days before his body was discovered, Emison said.
Williams’ wife, Annie, who saw her husband’s body after it was removed from the river, said his body had two holes in the chest that looked bullet wounds, and that it appeared that he had been tied to a heavy object before being thrown into the river. His head was swollen as though he had been beaten, but the swelling also may have been caused from the time he had been in the river.
Williams and his wife Annie were charter members of the NAACP, and they were scheduled to hold a meeting in their home about restoring voting rights for African Americans in the county. It is not clear what post Williams held with the Brownsville NAACP, but Wilkins called him secretary.
Fighting to regain the right to vote
“He was working to help blacks regain the vote,” Emison told NorthStar News Today.com. “Blacks had not been allowed to vote since 1910.”
The NAACP Chapter was founded in 1939, and 52 men and women were charter members.
Police and the Coca Cola manager Lee grabbed Williams because they had heard about the NAACP meeting. “We know a lot more about the law today. Instead of treating people fairly, they used their badges to intimidate and kill blacks,” Emison said.
On June 15th, before Williams’ disappearance, the cops seized Elisha Davis, a gas station and land owner and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave town. The next day, they arrested Buster Walker, the NAACP chapter president and threatened to harm him if he didn’t leave town. After learning of the threats, several black families also left the county, but Williams, boiler operator for a laundry, and Annie, who also worked at the laundry, refused to leave.
Following Walker’s death, the DOJ ordered a grand jury investigation but for some unexplained reason department officials changed their minds. The FBI interviewed or attempted to interview local black residents about the murder case but they got nowhere probably because they were accompanied by Hunter, the local cop.
Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme and at the time special counsel for the NAACP, traveled to Brownsville and gathered information about Williams’ death and took it to the Department of Justice.
Murder investigation forgotten
Marshall got nowhere because of racism and because the U.S. had just entered World War 2 on December 7, 1942.
“His murder investigation was completely forgotten,” Ashworth said.
Cornell William Brooks, national president and CEO of the NAACP, is scheduled to speak at the memorial service. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) and Rev. Clay Evans, co-founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and native of Brownsville, will speak by video conference. Rev. Evans’ foundation annually awards a college scholarship to a Haywood County High School student.
After the ceremony, participants will visit Williams’ grave. There wasn’t an autopsy, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Taylor Cemetery in Brownsville without his family being present, said Emison who is working to find where in the cemetery Williams is buried.
“We hope to be able to find his grave. We have forensic technicians looking for it,” Ashworth said.