The 1940 homicide of civil rights activist Elbert Williams has been reopened in Haywood County.
The Honorable Garry G. Brown, District Attorney for the 28th Judicial District of Tennessee, on Wednesday re-opened the investigation into the unsolved homicide, announced in a press release from the DA’s office.
Elbert Williams is recognized as the first known NAACP member to be killed for his civil rights work. Williams was a participant in the Brownsville NAACP branch’s 1940 effort to register African-American voters.
What happened in 1940
On the night of June 20, 1940, Williams was removed from his home, locked up in the Brownsville city jail and interrogated about his NAACP work. Williams’ wife went to the jail later the same night, but Elbert Williams was not there. He was never again seen alive.
On June 23, 1940, Williams’ body was recovered from the Hatchie River about six miles south of Brownsville. According to the release, the Haywood County coroner held an inquest on the riverbank and found that the “Cause of death … we believe was by foul means by parties unknown.” An immediate burial was ordered.
No autopsy or external medical examination was performed. The physical cause of death was not determined.
In August 1940, a Special Haywood Grand Jury impaneled to investigate Elbert Williams’ death ruled it a homicide by parties unknown.
The U.S. Department of Justice determined in 1941 that Williams’ death was “undoubtedly” a violation of existing federal civil rights criminal statutes, according to the release.
In 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered an internal investigation of the FBI’s conduct of its investigation of the Williams’ homicide, the release says, that determined the FBI had failed to follow relevant leads and failed to interview critical witnesses in its original investigation.
No statute of limitations
Although no charges, state or federal, have been brought against anyone, Tennessee has no statute of limitations for first-degree murder. Both the inquest jury and the special grand jury have determined that Elbert Williams’ death was a homicide, and it is never too late for justice, Brown stated in the release.
Tennessee’s new Civil Rights Crimes Cold Case Law of 2018, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in May, mandates a statewide survey of cold civil rights crimes and directs referral of “viable” cases for prosecution. This is such a case, the Brown states in the release.
Justice demands answers
“We cannot do all in 2018 that should have been done in 1940, but justice and historic truth demand that questions about the cause of Elbert Williams’ death, and the identity of his killer(s), that should have been answered long ago, be answered now if possible. We will do what we can,” Brown said in the release, adding, “We believe that Elbert Williams’ body is buried in an unmarked grave in Taylor Cemetery in Haywood County and that critical evidence of homicide may have been buried with him.
The exact location of his grave is unknown, but a ground penetrating radar survey of the portion of the cemetery where his grave is believed to be has shown several likely grave-shafts, one of which may be the grave of Elbert Williams. The University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Department, a world leader in the field, has volunteered its services in locating Elbert Williams’ grave and exhuming his remains and any evidence the grave contains.
Williams’ remains, along with any items of potential evidence, will be submitted for post-mortem examination. Finally, his remains will be re-interred with honor and dignity and permanently marked in a manner befitting his station as a civil rights hero.
“Unfortunately, justice today may not look like justice could have looked in 1940,” Brown goes on to say. “Today justice may consist of locating and examining Elbert Williams’ remains, and giving him a dignified burial with honor, and a permanently marked grave, that he so deserves. If this can be accomplished, we believe the Williams’ family and this community will benefit from knowing as much of the truth as we can today determine and in that truth find a measure of justice.
“That is why the investigation into the death of Elbert Williams is today reopened,” District Attorney Garry Brown said in the release.
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