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.