Tennessee Searches for Justice in Cold Civil Rights Cases

CHATTANOOGA (CN) — Seventy-eight years after Elbert Williams was murdered as he tried to register black voters in Western Tennessee, a district attorney has reopened the case. Williams was the first member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to die for his civil rights work.

Three days after being taken to the jail, Williams’ body was found in the Hatchie River downstream of Brownsville, Tennessee. The county coroner said there was foul play, but Williams’ remains were quickly buried in June 1940, without embalming, an autopsy or a marker for his grave.

“This was one huge deal to (the NAACP), huge,” said Jim Emison, who has spent six years researching Williams’ case.

“It was big enough that on one day in ‘41, December the 8th, the day after Pearl Harbor, Thurgood Marshall was in Brownsville, Tennessee looking for evidence.”

District Attorney Garry Brown announced the reopening of Williams’ case on Aug. 8, saying he was doing so because the Tennessee Legislature had passed a bill ordering a look into cold cases from the state’s civil rights era.

The question of who killed Williams has lain unanswered for decades, as have dozens of other cold cases whose victims were shot, beaten, bombed or lynched, and whose perpetrators never faced punishment.

With the Tennessee Civil Rights Crimes Information, Reconciliation, and Research Center, the state is the first in the country to create a government unit whose focus is on crimes committed during the Civil Rights movement.

Even with Williams’ case reopened, the center has yet to organize, publish a website, set up a hotline number to collect tips or submit its first annual report to the Legislature.

According to the amended Senate Bill 2631, the Legislature’s Office of Minority Affairs will serve as the center to collect the work of the state’s colleges and universities. It can also refer cases to state prosecutors and to U.S. attorneys.

If new evidence is uncovered and suspects are identified, then some perpetrators of decades-old crimes in Tennessee meant to terrorize black communities and block the right to vote could finally face a day in court.

“As important or more important is the restorative-justice reconciliation aspect of this,” said Emison, who is also the head of a loose organization called Tennesseans for Historical Justice. “And for the first time, a Tennessee state agency has been told to support and assist in restoring justice, reconciliation efforts.”

The center will also collect information on, participate and initiate remembrances and services that seek to reconcile the past.

Bill co-sponsor Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Republican attorney, said he became interested in the issue through his friendship with the bill’s co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. Johnnie Turner, whom he called a civil rights icon. She succeeded her husband, Larry Turner, who died in office in 2009.

In July 2017, the two lawmakers attended a ceremony at the Crockett County Courthouse, conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, which gathered soil at the site where Joseph Boxley was lynched in 1929 as part of its Community Remembrance Project.

“It had a very, I would say, cathartic effect on a number of people in the audience to see this coming to grips with that harsh reality of what had happened,” Norris said.

The Equal Justice Initiative was founded in 1994 by attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of the best-selling book “Just Mercy.” The first task of the Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit was representing people who were wrongly convicted, and freeing them from prison. Its mission has expanded to include representing people who were convicted of crimes as children and sentenced to decades in prison, and its Community Remembrance Project and museum.

As the Tennessee Legislature was exploring cold cases of the civil rights era through a committee, the federal government in 2016 reauthorized the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. According to Norris, the federal legislation helped members of the Tennessee General Assembly “crystallize their thinking” on its goals for civil rights cold cases.

The Legislature put the center within the Office of Minority Affairs “so that we wouldn’t be criticized for growing government or creating a new department,” Norris said.

The architect of the Emmett Till Act, Alvin Sykes, said he is not surprised that it took a state 11 years to create a center to explore cold civil rights cases, though the federal government encouraged states to do so.

“I’m a long distance runner for justice, not a short distance sprinter,” Sykes said. “So in the conception of this, I knew that it would take a while to catch on and for people to see the validity of it. … I look for it to happen and continue to look for it to happen in states around the country.”

Sykes dropped out of high school and became a researcher, using Kansas City public libraries to learn the law and research cold civil rights cases. When the bill was passed in 2007, Sykes modeled the civil rights cold case unit in the Department of Justice after the Office of Special Investigations created in the 1960s to track down Nazi war criminals.

Prosecution of these decades-old civil rights crimes is not his only goal.

“It may bring some measure of relief to families,” Sykes said, “to know that people, years later after their death, had enough respect for their loved one’s life that they looked to the very last moment to find as much truth as possible as to what happened to them and give them a sense of dignity for their loved one’s life.”

While Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is impressed that Tennessee created such a center, she said the center’s affect on the status of cold civil rights cases will depend on the resources it has.

“We had the Emmett Till legislation as well, but there was no real money behind it and there wasn’t enough time given to bring more evidence to bear to close these cases properly,” Brooks said.

Over the years, the Southern Poverty Law Center has collected information on dozens of civil rights cold cases, as have several universities. In 1989, SPLC dedicated the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, on which is engraved the names of 40 people killed during the Civil Rights Movement.

But how many lynchings and murders there were across Tennessee, across the nation, SPLC does not know. “The research is just not there. These stories are just coming out,” Brooks said. “Some estimate that there were thousands of people that were killed during the Civil Rights Movement, either for their own civil rights activism or in an attempt to frighten other people and get folks to stop.”

For Jerry Mitchell, investigative journalist at the Jackson, Mississippi paper The Clarion-Ledger, it’s worthwhile to investigate civil rights cold cases even if hundreds are “never going to see a courtroom,” because the truth can still get out.

“I started working on these cases back in 1989 and the most recent one prosecuted here was in 2007,” said Mitchell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose investigations helped jail four members of the KKK. “And I felt like we were probably getting to almost the edge of what was possible, just from the standpoint of defendants being alive, witnesses being alive.”

While time may obscure memory and erode evidence, the advantage to investigating civil rights cold cases now is also time, according to Mitchell.

“Terrorism really is what a lot of this was, so people didn’t come forward,” Mitchell said. “People weren’t able to talk or were afraid to talk. And so the passage of time has helped with that. The fear that was present at that moment in time has gone away and so people are freer, perhaps, to talk about it.”

The murder of Elbert Williams affected Leslie McGraw’s family for generations. McGraw, a 41-year-old entrepreneur, said that if her great-great uncle had not been killed and lived a natural life, he would have been alive when she was growing up. Her family would not have fled to Michigan, as so many African-Americans did, who left the South during the Great Migration.

“I see our family struggling in ways that is indicative of a second-generation immigrant,” McGraw said. “Sort of just started over. Like for instance, I thought I was doing something by being an entrepreneur.”

Her grandmother told her that back in Tennessee, everybody was starting businesses. Before Williams’ murder, McGraw’s family owned houses, had a church, a school and a café.

McGraw’s family used to avoid mentioning Williams’ name, a silence that’s begun to lift in the past few years. Growing up, McGraw felt pride at knowing the role her uncle played in the struggle for civil rights.

But to know that a district attorney has reopened her great-uncle’s case, that someone is searching for his grave, McGraw struggled to put that feeling into words.

Learning what really happened to her uncle is like reconnecting with an old friend, McGraw said, and for a family whose ancestors were twice uprooted: “Some of that makes you feel like home.”

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