1940’s civil rights murder case investigation reopened

BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. — A decades old cold case is reopened, and investigators are hoping to find answers to a mystery in a local cemetery.

Elbert Williams of Haywood County was one of the original members of the NAACP, or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Records show he was the first known member to be murdered after participating in the organization’s efforts to register African-American voters.

“And they were simply wanting to be a part of exercising their citizenship that African-Americans have fought for in every war,” said John Ashworth, chairman of the Elbert Williams Memorial Committee.

Officials say in June of 1940, Williams was taken from his home for interrogation and never seen alive again.

“His wife indicated that when they pulled his remains from the river,” Ashworth said, “he had what appeared to be bullet holes in his body.”

Even though Williams’s cause of death was never officially documented, a grand jury ruled it a homicide by parties unknown. However, District Attorney General Garry Brown announced Wednesday, this cold case is being reopened.

Memorial Committee members say the first step in this investigation is finding Williams’ remains, which they have reason to believe, are in an unmarked grave at Taylor Cemetery.

“And perhaps knowing that may also help uncover who was actually responsible for his death,” Ashworth said.

Members say funeral home documents and ground penetrating radar are guiding their search. They say family members are delighted at the thought of finally giving Williams a proper burial.

“They appreciate the fact that finally someone cares enough to try to determine the truth about what happened,” said Jim Emison, member of the Elbert Williams Memorial Committee.

District Attorney General Garry Brown says the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Department has volunteered its services in locating and exhuming Williams’s remains, along with any evidence found.

Elbert Williams Memorial Committee members say they expect these efforts to begin sometime this Fall.

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