Elbert Williams was thirty-one years old in June of 1940. He lived with his wife, Annie, in Haywood County, Tennessee, just northeast of Memphis. He worked at the Sunshine Laundry in Brownsville, where he arguably had the most important job: He kept the fire burning beneath the boiler that powered the entire enterprise.
Elbert was African-American, as were approximately seventy percent of the residents of Haywood County. He served as a board member of the local chapter of the NAACP, which was trying to register black people to vote for the first time since Reconstruction. Other NAACP leaders were threatened, their homes were burned down, and they fled. Elbert, a big man and not easily intimidated, decided to remain in Haywood County.
Late one night, two Brownsville police officers showed up at the Williams home. Elbert was just out of bed, barefoot, not dressed to go outside. The police took him anyway.
Early the next morning, Annie went to the police station, where she tried to bring Elbert shoes and clothing. The officer on duty—one of the two who had abducted her husband only hours before—looked straight at her and said, “I don’t know who he is. Elbert Williams hasn’t been here tonight.”
Annie went to the Brownsville postmaster, a powerful local official. Could he help her find her husband? She still had his clothes. The postmaster told her, “Maybe he doesn’t need any clothes.”
Eventually, desperately, Annie went to the Hayward County Sheriff, who finally acknowledged what everyone knew. “Oh, Miz Williams, those boys are not going to hurt your husband. They just want to ask him a few questions. They’ll turn him loose. If he’s not home in day or two, let me know.”
Elbert Williams never came home. On June 23, 1940, a Sunday morning, his battered, lifeless body was found in the nearby Hatchie River. The coroner called an immediate inquest, right there by the side of the water, that same morning. There was no autopsy, no medical examination of any kind, despite contemporaneous accounts that the body was bruised, battered, castrated, and perhaps chained to a heavy weight, and despite Annie’s insistence that there were two holes in Elbert’s chest. The inquest found that death had been caused by “foul means by parties unknown.” The coroner—the brother-in-law of one of the police officers who had kidnapped Elbert—ordered an immediate burial. That same afternoon, with no family present, Elbert’s body was buried in an unmarked grave.
The death caused quite a stir, for a while, anyway, at least within the local black community. Elbert Williams was the first NAACP member to be murdered for advocating civil rights. The perpetrators wanted to send a message, and they succeeded.
With time, however, memories faded, or were suppressed, at least in the local white community. People simply didn’t talk about it. Decades passed.
Enter trial attorney Jim Emison, a white man. After graduating from Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee’s College of Law in the 1960’s, Jim embarked upon a legal career in West Tennessee, a career marked by success, and accolades, and the respect of his peers. He served as President both of the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association.
Jim practiced law for years before he came across a reference to the case of Elbert Williams. Intrigued, he asked colleagues about it. Most of them had never heard of it. More time passed, and Jim was busy, he couldn’t stop thinking about the unsolved, largely forgotten murder that had happened so close to where he lived and worked.
When he retired in 2011, Jim could have devoted his life to golf, or travel, or any of the other things that successful former attorneys do. He decided, instead, to bring his analytical and investigatory skills to bear on the Williams case. It was then more than seventy years since Elbert had died. Documentary evidence was scant. Witnesses, and perhaps, the perpetrators themselves, were dead. There was no body. Cases don’t get much colder than that.
Nonetheless, over the next seven years, Jim made considerable progress. Others joined his cause. On May 15, 2018, Governor Haslam signed legislation sponsored by Rep. Johnnie Turner and Sen. Mark Norris creating the Tennessee Civil Rights Crimes Information, Reconciliation, and Research Center to serve as a clearinghouse for cold civil rights cases. On August 8, 2018, District Attorney Garry Brown re-opened the investigation into Elbert Williams’ murder. There is no statute of limitations for murder in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, the search for Elbert Williams’ body has begun. Vicksburg geophysicist Ryan North has used ground-penetrating radar to locate nine unmarked graves in the local cemetery where family lore says that Elbert was buried. Careful excavation will soon begin, overseen by Dr. Amy Mundorff, a professor at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, home of the famous “body farm.” If a male body is found matching Elbert’s large stature, its mitochondrial DNA will be compared to mitochondrial DNA of one of Elbert’s great-great-nieces. Elbert’s body may still harbor forensic evidence, such as bullets. Jim Emison has tracked down the sidearm carried by one of the police officers involved in the kidnapping. Maybe, just maybe, a ballistics test will establish a match.
Last August, Jim gave a presentation at Lincoln Memorial University’s law school. Like a spellbound jury, the audience hung on his every word. Clearly moved, several members of Knoxville’s African-American community murmured along as Jim spoke: “Tell it!” “Amen!” At times, there were tears, both from the audience and from Jim himself. A number of tissues were in evidence.
That same day, I interviewed Jim for my radio show. If you’d like to listen to our discussion, click here. Justice for Elbert Williams has been delayed, but perhaps it won’t ultimately be denied.
This essay originally appeared in DICTA: A Monthly Publication of the Knoxville Bar Association Vol. 45, Iss. 9, p. 26. Reprinted with permission of the author.