Please note: This event has been canceled because of weather conditions and will be rescheduled for a later date.
Jan. 18, 2015 — In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law will welcome retired lawyer and author Jim Emison at 12:30 on Thursday, Jan. 21, for a discussion on his forthcoming book, “Elbert Williams: First to Die.”
Since his 2011 retirement, Emison has been investigating the June 20, 1940, murder of NAACP member Elbert Williams, in Brownsville, Tenn. He has authored several articles on Williams’ murder, and the full-length book is set for release later this year. His articles are included in the Encyclopedia of African American History and on the National Civil Rights Museum website (www.civilrightsmuseum.org).
“Elbert Williams’ story is as American as the right to vote, and as southern as Jim Crow,” Emison said. “The story recounts the violent collision in June 1940, in Brownsville, Tenn., of African-American aspirations to vote with white supremacist determination to preserve their lily white electorate by all means necessary, murder included.”
Emison’s research shows that before Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and James Chaney became martyrs in the Civil Rights movement, Elbert Williams was the first NAACP official in the nation to be murdered for his civil rights work, yet few know Williams’ name, let alone his story.
On June 20, 1940, Williams was abducted from his Brownsville home by police. There was no warrant for his arrest, he was not suspected of committing any crime, and there was no probable cause that he had committed a crime. His only offense seemed to stem from being the charter member of the Brownsville NAACP branch.
Police jailed Williams and interrogated him about his plan to hold an NAACP meeting. He did not return home that night and did not show for work the next day. Three days later, his wife was summoned to the Hatchie River, where a body had been recovered. Annie Williams identified her husband and a coroner’s jury was assembled at the riverbank. There was no investigation, no autopsy and no medical examination. Within hours, Williams was buried without a funeral, in an unmarked grave. The FBI investigated and the Department of Justice ordered prosecution, later closing the case abruptly in 1942.
Over 75 years later, Williams’s murder remains unsolved, and many questions about his death and the subsequent investigations remain.
“Elbert Williams’s place in civil rights history as the first known NAACP official murdered is an event of national historic importance,” Emison said. “The murder of Elbert Williams is a crime that screams for justice, which can only be achieved with the completion of an investigation which was abandoned long ago.”