JACKSON, Tenn — More than 78 years after a black voter-registration activist’s body was found in a West Tennessee river, a white district attorney has reopened an investigation into his death.
The body of Elbert Williams, 32, was found June 23, 1940, in the Hatchie River about 6 miles south of Brownsville, Tennessee. Though the Haywood County coroner at the time had an inquest on the riverbank and found the cause of death to be “foul means by parties unknown,” he also ordered an immediate burial without an autopsy.
No one ever was charged in the case, and Williams’ grave has not been found though it is believed to be in a church cemetery near Brownsville.
“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,” Gary Brown, 28th Judicial District attorney, said Wednesday in a statement. “We will do what we can.”
An NAACP official has called Williams “the first martyr of the NAACP.” Williams, part of a group of people who registered black voters in western Tennessee in the early days of the civil-rights movement, was killed more than two decades before a Klansman gunned down NAACP leader Medgar Evers outside Evers’ Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963.
The move to reopen the Williams case comes about three weeks after the federal government renewed its investigation into the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teen from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was brutally killed.
A U.S. attorney in Memphis declined to re-open the Williams investigation in 2017 after a request from the man’s relatives and Jim Emison, a retired white lawyer in nearby Alamo, Tennessee, who became intrigued with the case. It was not immediately clear whether Brown has new leads or if new evidence has been discovered.
“I hope this has a cascade effect,” Emison said. “It’s a matter of the pursuit of justice, no matter how long it takes.”
Brown’s investigators plan to work with a University of Tennessee forensic scientist to look for Williams’ grave. Emison and others believe exhuming Williams’ body could lead to a murder weapon.
“His remains will be re-interred with honor and dignity and permanently marked in a manner befitting his station as a civil-rights hero,” Brown’s statement said. Officials believe that Williams was buried in an unmarked grave in Taylor’s Chapel Cemetery, about 5 miles northeast of downtown Brownsville.
On the night of June 20, 1940, a group of men led by a Brownsville police Officer Tip Hunter took Williams from his home, locked him up in the Brownsville city jail and interrogated him about his NAACP work. Williams’ wife went to the jail later the same night, but Williams was not there.
Williams was never again seen alive.
According to Brown’s office:
• In August 1940, a special grand jury in Haywood County was impaneled to investigate Williams’ death. Members ruled it a homicide by parties unknown.
• In 1941, the federal Justice Department determined that Williams’ death was “undoubtedly” a violation of existing federal civil-rights criminal statutes. But federal officials closed their investigation in spite of evidence gathered by Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel to the NAACP who later became the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African-American justice.
• In 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered an internal investigation of the FBI’s conduct of its investigation into the homicide. It determined that the FBI had failed to follow relevant leads and failed to interview critical witnesses.
• In February 2017, former U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III said in letter to Williams’ family that his office could not reopen the investigation because more than 75 years had passed and many if not all of the potential witnesses have died. He also wrote that the statute of limitations for any federal crime had long expired.
But Tennessee state law has no such time limit. The state’s new Civil Rights Crimes Cold Case Law of 2018, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in May, mandates a statewide survey of cold civil rights crimes and directs referral of viable cases for prosecution, Brown said.
Williams and other civil-rights workers like him registered blacks in in rural areas where lynchings had taken place and activists were threatened with violence.
FBI and Justice Department documents that Emison obtained from the National Archives showed that Brownsville police, upset because the local NAACP branch was registering blacks to vote, had led an effort to force its members out of town. Then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge said in a letter to U.S. District Attorney William Clanahan that the “obvious purpose” of the police and others had been to frighten the town’s black population and prevent them from voting.
Emison believes that some witnesses or perpetrators still may be alive.
Stanton, the former U.S. attorney, said the federal government couldn’t find a way to reopen the case but called Williams “an American and civil rights hero.”
“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,” Brown said.