Reopening of 1940 Elbert Williams case part of national effort to bring justice to civil rights heroes

Elbert Williams, a civil rights activist and member of the NAACP, was killed and his body was dumped in a river 78 years ago in Brownsville, Tenn. But his case has not been forgotten.

Tennessee plans to reopen his case as part of a new law that seeks to reopen civil rights killings that had long ago gone cold. Williams is believed to be the first NAACP member killed because of his civil rights work.

It is part of a national effort to solve civil rights cases that many thought would never be revisited. The Tennessee law, passed in May, gives investigators the right to reopen decades-old civil rights cold cases if there is sufficient evidence.

“We cannot do all in 2018 that should have been done in 1940,” Garry Brown, the district attorney for the 28th judicial district in Tennessee, said in a news release this month. “But Justice and historic truth demand that questions about the case of Elbert Williams’ death, and the identity of his killer(s), that should have been answered long ago, be answered now if possible. We will do what we can.”

"Justice and historic truth demand that questions about the case of Elbert Williams’ death, and the identity of his killer(s), that should have been answered long ago, be answered now if possible."

- Garry Brown, district attorney for Tennessee's 28th judicial district

The case is reminiscent of the federal government’s recent effort to reopen the investigation into the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, who was lynched after a woman said he offended her. The woman has since recanted. Activists say they hope to bring justice to families wronged by violence and lychings of the pre-civil rights era.

Haywood county cemetary

The remains of Elbert Williams are believed to be buried in an unmarked grave in a historically black cemetery in Haywood County, Tenn. A forensic team from the University of Tennesse Knoxville will begin a search for his remains this year.  (Fox News)

According to accounts from the time, police took Williams from his home on June 20, 1940. The Brownsville police interrogated him about his work with the NAACP and his efforts to register African-American voters. Three days later, his battered body was found on the bank of the Hatchie River. 

There was never a trial for his death. His killing will be the first such case to be reopened under the three-month-old Tennessee law.

Political leaders and those in the community said Williams deserves a place as a martyr of civil rights period – even though his story is not as well-known as others from the era.

State Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, was one of the main sponsors of the civil rights cold case law.

“It’s kind of like this hidden secret that has been passed down for generations and generations and you had no hope that justice would ever be done,” Turner told Fox News.

“It’s kind of like this hidden secret that has been passed down for generations and generations and you had no hope that justice would ever be done.”

- Tennessee state Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis

Turner expects more cases to follow. The NAACP estimates that between 1882 to 1968, 4,743 people were lynched in the United States. African-Americans account for nearly 73 percent of lynching cases, with the majority of cases taking place in the South. 

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law in May, making Tennessee the only state in the country with a law to re-open civil rights cold cases.

Elbert Williams Plaque

Jim Emison has worked for several years to uncover the circumstances surrounding the murder of Elbert Williams. Emison attended a ceremony along with Williams' relatives to install a memorial plaque in downtown Brownsville in 2015.  (Fox News)

Jim Emison, a retired lawyer from Tennessee, help breathe new life into the Williams case after he read about it online. Emison had been trying to solve the murder for at least six years and was pivotal in uncovering new evidence for the case. He strongly believe police officers are behind his killing, and that federal investigators covered it up.

“Back in those days black people couldn’t vote in Haywood County,” Emison said. “That’s what caused all of this. That’s why Elbert Williams died. [He] was trying to get the vote.”

“Back in those days black people couldn’t vote in Haywood County. That’s what caused all of this. That’s why Elbert Williams died. [He] was trying to get the vote.”

- Jim Emison, retired lawyer seeking justice for Elbert Williams

Emison presented Brown, the district attorney, with evidence, including un-redacted FBI files from an internal investigation surrounding the agency’s handling of the case ordered by J. Edgar Hoover. That investigation found that the FBI failed to chase leads and question important witnesses.

NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, tried to bring attention to the case. But it was closed in 1942 and no one was ever arrested.

Shortly after police removed Williams from his home, his wife identified his body bruised, swollen and with two holes in his chest that appeared to be by bullets. His remains were found along the bank of the nearby Hatchie River. 

The first part of the investigation into Williams’ death will involve finding his remains. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a historically black cemetery in Haywood County. Williams’ great grandniece, Leslie McGraw, donated DNA to help a team identify him.

“I wasn’t expecting the district attorney’s decision last week, that was a complete shock I was really surprised,” McGraw said this week.

McGraw said she hopes that by drawing attention to Williams’ murder, the country can avoid repeating the same mistakes it made in the past.

“The main reason we’ve got to tell this story is to be honest with ourselves about what we are,” Emison said. “And when you dig into this you begin to understand the depths of the wounds this inflicted and those wounds don’t go to the grave with Elbert Williams’ generation … they live on. Whatever the result, legally we think that the investigation itself is a great positive and that the end result will be a reconciliation.”

A forensic team from the University of Tennessee will begin searching for Williams’ remains this fall, signaling the first major step in the investigation in nearly 80 years.

Willie James Inman is a Fox News multimedia reporter based in Jackson, Mississippi. Follow him on twitter: @WillieJames