Civil rights activist Elbert Williams will be honored on the 75th anniversary of his death at a community memorial service June 20, at 9 a.m. at the Haywood High School gymnasium in Brownsville. Williams is the first known National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) official to be killed for his involvement in the civil rights movement.
The memorial service will feature NAACP National President Cornell William Brooks as principal speaker. It will also include video remarks by the Reverend Clay Evans, co-founder of Operation Push, and by civil rights leader Representative John Lewis, D-Georgia.
An additional activity honoring Williams will be the unveiling of a state historical marker at 11 a.m. in downtown Brownsville. A brief 1 p.m. service at Taylor Cemetery, where Williams is buried, will conclude the program. All events are free, and the public is invited.
Dr. Dorothy Granberry, retired Tennessee State University professor and a member of the memorial committee said, “The memorialization of this event is an important step in our collective acknowledgement of our local struggle to realize the dream of a democratic United States of America, open to all regardless of race, gender or previous condition of servitude.”
Williams was murdered in Brownsville June 20, 1940. Local authorities ordered an immediate burial without a post mortem or determination of the cause of death. Williams was buried without benefit of a funeral; his family was not present at his burial.
Williams and his wife, Annie, seeking to register to vote in the upcoming presidential election, had become charter members of the Brownsville NAACP Branch in 1939, and he had been elected secretary. The voter registration drive led to social and economic reprisals and ultimately to the murder of Elbert Williams. On June 20, 1940, two Brownsville policemen went to Williams’ house, abducted him and took him to jail. His corpse was found three days later in nearby Hatchie River. His widow identified his body and saw what appeared to be two bullet holes in his chest.
A local grand jury failed to indict anyone. The United States Department of Justice initially ordered the case presented to a federal grand jury, but reversed itself and closed the case in early 1942. Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel to the NAACP and later a Supreme Court justice, gathered evidence in Brownsville and became a lifelong critic of the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute Williams’ assailants. In December 1942, the United States entered World War II, and the memory of Williams’ death faded.
“The City of Brownsville established the Human Relations Council to help engage our people in continuing the dialogue on racial reconciliation,” explained Fred Silverstein, chair of the Human Relations Council. He added, “Recognizing Elbert Williams and his sacrifice is a part of this process.”
The Elbert Williams Memorial Committee, organized in October 2014, is chaired by John Ashworth. The committee hopes the planned memorial service will restore the historical memory of an unsung hero in the quest for human and civil rights.