Jim Emison wants answers. A man was killed in a brutal racial incident in 1940, and his case was forgotten. The murdered man, Elbert Williams, was a member of the NAACP who organized meetings of African Americans in West Tennessee’s Haywood County. He was found in a river and buried without autopsy in an unmarked grave.
Since reading an article in 2012 that mentioned Williams’ case, Emison has been conducting an investigation. He learned that the local grand jury case had taken place with an entirely white jury, that the FBI had investigated but hadn’t included several key witnesses, and that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White had been interested in the case.
“Elbert Williams is the first known NAACP official to be murdered,” Emison says. “This man was killed because he was organizing a meeting of African Americans in Haywood County to help them regain the right to vote, which they had been deprived of for at least 40 years. His murder was part of a deliberate, white-terrorist campaign to prevent that.”
Emison is a retired lawyer and former president of both the Tennessee Bar Association and Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association. He had tried cases for many years in Brownsville, the seat of Haywood County, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. Reared in the area, he sometimes had heard relatives—many of them also lawyers—refer to incidents of racism and lynching from the past. But in 2012, while researching another case, he came across an online article about a 1940 lynching in Haywood County that he’d never heard about—the one resulting in Williams’ death.
Emison pursued the story further. He ordered FBI and Department of Justice case files from the National Archives and was surprised to receive unredacted copies of these files, which confirmed the Brownsville police had tried to force NAACP members out of town because they were registering blacks to vote. In his investigations Emison also learned that Williams’ wife, Annie, who saw the body before it was buried, reported what looked like two bullet wounds in Williams’ chest.
In 2014, Emison began writing a book titled Elbert Williams: First to Die. Because of his investigation of the case, a memorial service for Williams took place June 20, 2015. Attended by more than 500 people, the service featured speaker Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP. A historical marker documenting Williams’ death was unveiled the same day, including the language Emison had hoped for: that Williams’ murder was part of a “white-terrorist” campaign to prevent African Americans from voting.
Emison now wants to find Williams’ grave—one of several unmarked plots in a certain cemetery. He hopes that doing so will allow for placement of a marker, but also may reveal bullets that could bring Williams’ murderer to justice. Amy Mundorff of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is working to help Emison find the grave. They are being aided by Clark Davenport of GeoForensics Inc., a company that specializes in finding unmarked graves and is currently working to find a Bolshevik grave in Russia.
Emison has requested the local district attorney to reopen the case, and his office has told the Associated Press that it’s under consideration. Two documentary filmmakers have expressed interest in the story. Ultimately, Emison believes more will be discovered.
“I want the history of this man’s death and its significance to be known and become a part of civil rights history,” Emison says. “He’s a hero just like Medgar Evers, and I want him to be known and to have that respect. We owe our society an effort to solve this.”