[Update] Retired Tenn. Lawyer Researches Cold Case of Murdered Civil Rights Era NAACP Official

Jun 15, 2015

Elbert Williams, left, the subject of research by Jim Emison, right, on the Civil Rights Era cold-case surrounding his murder in Brownsville, TN
Credit Photos courtesy of Jim Emison

Second Update: NPR's All Things Considered reported on this  effort. Here's the link to their story: Tennessee Community Pushes To Reopen 'Civil Rights Hero' Cold Case

Update: Part two of this conversation, which aired on Sounds Good Friday, June 19, has been added to this story, along with its narrative.  

Brownsville, Tennessee is in Haywood County mid-way northeast of Memphis and southwest of Jackson. On Saturday, the Haywood High School Gymnasium is the site of a Community Memorial Service honoring civil rights activist Elbert Williams on the 75th anniversary of his death. Alamo, Tennessee lawyer Jim Emison retired in 2011 and began a quest to understand more about the death of Elbert Williams, whose murder was never solved. Williams was the first known NAACP official to be killed for his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Jim Emison speaks with Kate Lochte on Sounds Good about what he's learned.

Jim Emison says he spent his career as an attorney mainly doing litigation in western Tennessee and was researching an article about an event in his hometown that had resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court Case interpreting the 14th amendment in the 1880s when he ran across an article on the internet about two depression-era lynchings in the region. Having lived 20 minutes from Brownsville, working there throughout his career and hearing stories growing up from his parents and grandparents, Emison wondered why he'd never heard about this case and why, when contacting his colleagues, they hadn't heard of it either. So he decided to dig in and has been researching for the past three and a half years.

Emison describes the story on Sounds Good:

The year was 1940 and Haywood County, Tennessee was a majority black county. Despite this, black people hadn't been able to vote since 1910 and this wasn't because they weren't qualified, but because the local whites wouldn't let them and were determined to keep it that way, Emison says. In 1939, a local NAACP branch was founded and Elbert Williams and his wife were charter members. In May of 1940, five members (not Elbert Williams) tried to register to vote but weren't successful. The next day, threats came in. A plan was developed by the white power structure to destroy the NAACP branch by kidnapping the leaders and running them out of town. They did this on June 15 and 16. One of these leaders was chapter president Buster Walker, who contacted the national headquarters and was told to speak about his experience in Philadelphia at the national convention later that month.

On June 20, Elbert Williams was overheard by a white man of organizing an NAACP meeting and was reported to the city police. That night, uniformed police officers took Williams into custody without warrant or probable cause, put him in jail and interrogated him. This was the last his wife or employer saw him, says Emison. His wife searched for him, but got a phone call a few days later that a body had been found in the river.

Emison believes that the murder was the second to last step in the campaign to destroy the NAACP branch in Brownsville. The last step, he says, was pulling the body out of the river on Sunday and displaying it on the river bank to make an impression and wanted black people to know: 'this is what happens if you try to vote.' The NAACP branch was destroyed and wasn't reconstituted until 1961, giving way to 20 more years of white rule.

In 1963, when Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, Roy Wilkins - who was the executive secretary of the NAACP and a good friend of Medgar Evers (had demonstrated with him a week prior in Jackson, Mississippi) - was in New York when Elbert Williams was killed. At the Evers' funeral, he made mention of black pioneers including Elbert Williams.

Thurgood Marshall got involved after hearing the reports from the chapter president at the national convention in Philadelphia. He was special counsel for the NAACP at the time and opened an investigation into Brownsville. In 1941, he wend there to gather evidence, but his efforts failed to be fruitful and the Department of Justice closed the case in 1942. Marshall was critical of the decision for years and of the FBI investigation, convinced that the FBI took the chief suspect in the murder with them to talk to some witnesses but not others. J. Edgar Hoover ordered an internal investigation, which concluded that the FBI had done a poor job, failing to contact several crucial witnesses whose testimony would have made a difference in the DOJ's decision to close the case. Emison adds that local authorities and the coroner had ordered an immediate burial without autopsy, medical examination or funeral. Williams was buried within hours he was brought out of the river.

Jim Emison is working on a book with more details on this story, titled Elbert Williams First To Die and he says he's determined to persuade the Department of Justice to re-open the case under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

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Part two of our conversation with Jim Emison:

In the second part of our conversation with Jim Emison on the cold case murder of Civil Rights Era NAACP official Elbert Williams. Emison describes the suspects in the murder case and his own quest to establish the historical record of what happened to him and its significance. He says he wants to honor a man that's been forgotten, who ranks among Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers and Harry T. Moore. 

Elbert Williams was buried in an unmarked grave and Emison is leading efforts trying to locate it. He's working with a retired FBI agent, an engineer from Geoforensics Inc. and the Forensic Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee. He wants to find Williams' grave, analyze the remains in hopes that it yields more clues about his murder, mark the grave and "honor the man who other than being mentioned by Roy Wilkins at Medgar Evers funeral has just been a completely forgotten hero of the Civil Rights movement." Emison mentions that Patricia Sullivan wrote in her book Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement six pages devoted to Elbert Williams, mentioning that he was the first NAACP official in the nation killed for his civil rights activities - a fact that is a major point of American history that needs to be remembered, he says.

There were three men who killed Elbert Williams. One was a Brownsville policeman named Tip Hunter, who'd been sheriff of Haywood County at the time and continued to be sheriff several terms later. He and his brother Jack controlled the office from 1929 to 1966. Emison says he was the leader of the three and was the FBI's chief suspect in the murder. The second was another policeman named Charles Read. The third was a civilian named Ed Lee, the manager of the Coca Cola Bottling Company in Brownsville and former president of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce. Emison argues, "his presence lends support to the theory or fact that this was an organized, planned effort that involved the most wealthy and most powerful political men in that county."

There was another kidnapping around the same time as Elbert Williams, of one Elijah Davis, who led the five men to attempted to register to vote. His fate was sealed within hours Buster Walker left town to the NAACP convention in Philadelphia. Walker knew the mob was coming for him and he slipped out of town with the help of a friend. At 1 a.m. on Sunday, June 16. Tip Hunter, Charles Read and a mob of 50 white men across the business and agricultural spectrum of the county came for Davis. Hunter and Read, in full uniform, took him from his home (from his wife and seven children) and down to the river swamp. There, they surrounded him and threatened him with death, making him tell who the members of the NAACP were and was told to get out of the county or they'd kill him. Davis was the operator of a service station in Brownsville and recognized 13 of the men. He made an affidavit which the NAACP lawyers took to the Department of Justice naming the men. Emison says the list is impressive and outlines a tight-knit group, but each of the men walked away without prosecution. He says one of these men might still be alive, perhaps in his 90s today. He says he wants him to be brought to justice and is seeking a fresh investigation by the FBI and the Department of Justice to establish the historical record.

The FBI was in Brownsville two days after the murder of Elbert Williams, but they made no effort to exhume the body, have a post-mortem exam, gathered no physical evidence, no documentary evidence, no photographs, they didn't visit the crime scenes, interview critical witnesses, only collected brief statements. There were no follow-up questions and no attempt to verify the information. "I think 75 years is long enough to wait," Emison says. "The Department of Justice is going to have to close every door from Memphis to Washington. And I don't think that they will. I have hope that they are going to do the right thing. I truly believe they will reopen this case." He says the least we can do is to get his name in its proper place in the history books and to get the Department of Justice to complete the investigation it started in 1940.

Retired Alamo, Tennessee attorney Jim Emison is working to re-open an investigation of his murder and in the second half of this conversation with Kate Lochte, he goes into detail about the suspects and Williams' significance in Civil Rights Era history.