Three quarters of a century after an NAACP activist was murdered for registering black voters in Tennessee, a retired white attorney with a dark family past is leading an effort to have the cold case reopened.
Jim Emison keeps on his desk a black-and-white photo from 1939 showing a man named Elbert Williams and two dozen other charter members of the NAACP’s Brownsville branch in the early, dangerous days of the civil rights movement.
Williams would be dead the following year, killed by unknown assailants in Brownsville on June 20, 1940.
Williams’ slaying was never solved, but Emison, a 71-year-old retired attorney, hopes to change that.
‘We should do everything we can do to see who killed this man,’ Emison said. ‘If there is anybody in a group that may have done it that’s still living, they need to be brought to justice.’
Seventy-five years after what some historians believe to be the first NAACP member killed for daring to speak up for civil rights, Emison has gotten federal authorities to take another look at it.
Emison’s obsession with Williams’ death grew more out of what he didn’t hear than what he did.
When he was a child, Emison sometimes heard his father, grandfather and uncle — all lawyers — talk about lynchings and other atrocities against African Americans.
His father’s uncle had been the Crockett County sheriff. Emison said a mob came to the jail one day in 1929 to seize and lynch an arrested man named Joseph Boxley, who had been accused of assaulting a woman.
He said it’s unclear whether the mob forcibly took the man, or the sheriff willingly turned over the key. But Emison said he’ll never forget his father saying he was afraid his uncle ‘did not act honorably that night,’ words that have haunted Emison to this day.
‘When it’s somebody that’s in your family, who may have been able to prevent it and didn’t, then that’s disturbing,’ he said.
As a young boy growing up in the South, those conversations fostered a sense of outrage, a growing desire for justice that stayed with Emison during more than 40 years of trying cases in the Brownsville courthouse. Many of his clients were African American. Some of them he represented pro bono.
After all those years in the courthouse, Emison said he was shocked that he hadn’t heard about Williams’ case. And as he learned more, his anger only grew.
‘It was just like he was discarded; valueless, worthless,’ he said.
In 2012, Emison was researching a story he planned to write about a court case when he came across an online article about two lynchings in 1937 and 1940.
The latter was Williams’ killing. Emison ordered FBI and Department of Justice case files from the US National Archives. To his surprise, officials there sent him un-redacted copies.
The records 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 US District Attorney William Clanahan that the ‘obvious purpose’ of the police and others had been to ‘frighten the entire colored population of Brownsville and thus prevent qualified Negroes from exercising their franchise.’
Some of the members left town, but Williams stayed behind. When the police got a tip that he was planning an NAACP meeting at his home, a group of men led by police officer Tip Hunter went to his residence, said they needed to question him outside and then took him away.
Williams’ body was found three days later in the nearby Hatchie River.
No autopsy was performed. A coroner’s jury ruled the body was ‘decomposed so badly we could not make thorough examination’ and that the cause of death was believed to be by ‘foul means by persons unknown.’
Williams’ wife, Annie, and his father identified the body, and she soon moved to New York.
Later, in an exclusive interview with the Amsterdam News, a black weekly in New York, Annie Williams said the local authorities had tried to prevent her from seeing her slain husband, and that ‘the coroner had already issued the order to have the body buried as soon as possible.’
‘It was only because I insisted that they let me look at it. It was a terrible sight, but I recognized him.
‘His head was swollen twice its normal size. There were two holes in his chest that looked like bullet holes, the skin on his arms, legs, buttocks was bruised and blistered. His arms and legs, I heard, had been tied with rope and his body weighted down by a heavy log tied around his neck.’
The Justice Department initially ordered the case presented to a federal grand jury, then mysteriously reversed itself and closed the case in early 1942.
It did so in spite of evidence gathered by Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel to the NAACP, who went on to become the US Supreme Court’s first African-American justice in 1967.
Emison wants the case reopened and Williams’ body exhumed, despite some resistance from a few people in the community.
But Emison has ignored them. He’s spent hours interviewing Williams’ descendants, relatives of NAACP members from the branch and even family members of two police officers — both now deceased — who went to Williams’ home that night. Relatives of the officers declined interviews with The Associated Press.
Emison even has suspicions about the killers. He believes exhuming the body could lead to a murder weapon, considering Williams’ wife said she saw what looked like bullet holes in his chest.
Emison recently turned his findings over to Justice Department officials who he said are giving Williams’ case serious consideration despite the department’s announcement last year that it will likely stop prosecuting civil rights-era murders that occurred in the South.
Williams’ slaying wasn’t among the cases the Justice Department re-examined in recent years, in part because it hadn’t resurfaced until Emison started pushing.
‘I am optimistic that they will be interested in this one,’ Emison said. ‘It’s older, but it is of great historic importance.’
Edward Stanton III, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, told The Associated Press the department is reviewing materials from the case, but didn’t say when a decision will be made.
‘We’re giving a strong look at the information provided,’ Stanton said.
Leslie McGraw, Williams’ great-niece, called Emison’s efforts ‘validating.’
“It didn’t seem like anybody was really interested in seeking justice,’ said McGraw.