On June 20, 1940, Elbert Williams, a 31 year-old member of the recently formed Brownsville, Tennessee chapter of the NAACP, was kidnapped from his home by the local police, interrogated about his voter registration efforts, and murdered. His bullet-riddled body was found floating in the Hatchie River three days later and buried in an unmarked grave. Elbert Williams thus became the first known official of the NAACP to be murdered for his civil rights work.
A black man’s life was worth little in the eyes of the law at the time and the local investigation into the death resulted in no arrests or charges. Under pressure from the NAACP, including its Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation and twice ordered the U.S. Attorney in Memphis to prosecute. But the D.O.J. mysteriously reversed course and closed the case, citing “insufficient evidence.” The case went cold, the killers walked, and justice failed at every level. Black citizens in Brownsville were denied the vote and whites enjoyed another twenty years of political hegemony before the civil rights movement took hold in the 1960’s. By then, new leaders had stepped forward to continue the march toward equality. Elbert Williams and his contribution to this most righteous of struggles, were all but forgotten.
Enter Jim Emison, newly retired trial lawyer and former President of both the Tennessee Bar and Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association, and father of my law partner Theo Emison.
As a boy in Alamo Tennessee, Jim had often heard stories of the atrocities committed against blacks, of lynchings and oppression, and he saw for himself the conditions that existed in a place where cotton was king and Jim Crow meant black citizens lived under an apartheid-like system that perpetuated injustice.
Injustice is something that has never sat well with Jim Emison and when he happened to hear of the near forgotten murder of an NAACP official, he set out on a quest to solve the murder and honor the man who sacrificed his life at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Using the skill and tenacity he developed over his half-century as a lawyer fighting for the underdog, Jim threw himself into the cause. He pored over local records and newspaper articles and through Freedom of Information requests succeeded in obtaining the D.O.J and F.B.I. files on the case. He saw firsthand, in unredacted files, the effect of political pressure and apathy on a murder investigation that could have been an open and shut case…in another time and place.
Jim has been tireless and sometimes rabid in his quest to find the truth. He assembled a team of experts, all working pro bono, including forensic anthropologists from the University of Tennessee to help find William’s unmarked grave. He has conducted thousands of hours of research and countless interviews. He has located what may be the murder weapon, now owned by the daughter of the Sheriff who took Williams into custody. Perhaps the matching bullets lie in Elbert Williams’ body in that unmarked grave? Emison wants to ensure that if any of the culprits are still living that they are brought to justice. If they are all dead, he wants the world to know that the case has been solved and Elbert Williams has not been forgotten. And while it looks like the case may finally be solved soon, Emison has already succeeded in ensuring Williams’ legacy. Last June 20th, on the 75 anniversary of Elbert Williams’ death, dignitaries from all over the country and the world arrived in Brownsville for a memorial ceremony and the unveiling of an official state historical marker commemorating Elbert Williams’ life and death. Cornell Brooks, the President of the NAACP was on hand to thank Emison for his work in bringing this case out from the shadows and into the light.
Jim’s official request to reopen the federal investigation is under consideration by the U.S. Attorney in Memphis and he has traversed the country, from Knoxville to Seattle, telling Elbert Williams’ story on television and radio shows and anywhere else people are willing to listen. He is writing a book entitled Elbert Williams, First to Die, and is preparing to supervise and mentor law students in the investigation of other civil rights cold cases. Apart from his travels on behalf of this quest, Jim and his wife Betty split their time between their home in Tennessee and their condo in North Beach, where Jim’s infectious enthusiasm and Tennessee twang delight all who encounter him. I caught up with him recently for a little interview about what this journey has meant to him.
Jim Emison, retired, but driven.
Was there a moment when you thought you’d hit a dead end or that you’d never find the truth? If so, how did you persevere?
I am still searching for the whole truth. We know with certainty that Elbert Williams was last seen alive in the custody of the Brownsville police, that he was murdered and his body dumped in the Hatchie River, and that his widow saw bullet holes in his chest. We know that there was no post mortem medical examination of the body, and that per the coroner’s order the body was buried immediately in an unmarked grave in Taylor Cemetery. The exact location of the grave has been forgotten. A ground penetrating radar survey of the area of the cemetery where we believe Williams is buried revealed eleven unmarked graves. If the grave can be found, our team of forensic scientists will find it. If we’re allowed to exhume the remains, we have DNA from his relatives and we can conclusively identify Elbert’s body. And we might find the bullets in his chest. The FBI’s chief suspect’s gun still exists and ballistics tests might tell us whether it fired the fatal rounds. The original investigators did not even determine the cause of Elbert Williams’ death. The FBI collected no physical evidence and did such a poor, sub-standard investigation that an internal investigation launched in 1947 determined that the FBI failed to cover leads, failed to interview critical witnesses whose statements may have changed the outcome of the case, and that the investigation received poor supervision in the field and at the seat of government. The Federal Government and the State of Tennessee now have a second chance. They should re-open the investigation and do in 2016 what should have been done in 1940– solve this crime.
What was your biggest triumph along the way?
The greatest triumph to date has been putting together a team of world class experts who are itching to move on the case as soon as it is reopened. Getting the Tennessee Historical Commission to honor Elbert Williams with an official historical marker, and having a successful memorial service has also been deeply gratifying. NAACP President Cornell Brooks delivered the memorial address and Congressman John Lewis video taped a message for the service that was attended by a crowd of over five hundred.
How did being a trial lawyer influence or affect your journey?
My career as a trial lawyer has given me a passion for justice that has sustained me, and propelled me, when the road to justice for Elbert Williams narrowed or curved. I am all in on this.
Why did you do this?
Why? Well, Elbert Williams suffered injustice in 1940. He was murdered because he sought to hold an NAACP meeting. Because he was working to regain the vote for his people. The State of Tennessee and the U.S Department of Justice turned their backs on Elbert Williams. For seventy-five years that injustice has continued. Justice bears no expiration date. We as a society owe Elbert Williams, we owe ourselves to use every state of the art technology, and the most creative investigatory techniques to solve the murder. If a perpetrator is living, it is past time he faced justice. If all the perpetrators are dead, than the historical record must be set straight. Anything less would be another injustice.
What effect has your investigation had on history?
In 1963 at Medgar Evers’ funeral, Roy Wilkins reminded the mourners that the giants of the civil rights movement of the 1960s stood on the shoulders of pioneers like Elbert Wiliams, but since then Elbert Williams’ murder was virtually forgotten. I hope my work will inspire others to do similar work. There are over 100 unsolved civil rights cold cases. So far we have exhibited no national will to do the work necessary to solve them. Justice demands that we do. I hope that my work on the Elbert Williams murder is the beginning of a national effort to achieve the justice that should have been achieved long ago. Justice, like wisdom, is not to be despised because it is slow in coming.
More information about the Elbert Williams case and Jim’s investigation can be found at www.elbertwilliamsfirsttodie.com