BROWNSVILLE – The investigation into the 1940 slaying of civil rights worker Elbert Williams in Haywood County, Tennessee is being reopened after 78 years.
Haywood County District Attorney Garry Brown said Wednesday that his office is launching an investigation into the death of the 32-year-old Williams.
Williams’s body was found in the Hatchie River about six miles south of Brownsville on June 23, 1940, three days after he was taken from his home by a group of men led by a police officer. Williams had been taken to the Brownsville City Jail to be interrogated about his work with the NAACP. When his wife went to the jail that night, Williams was not there, and was never again seen alive.
The Haywood County coroner held an inquest and found that the “cause of death, we believe, was by foul means by parties unknown.”
The Department of Justice initially ordered the case presented to a federal grand jury, then reversed itself and closed it in 1942.
A U.S. attorney in Memphis declined to reopen the investigation on legal grounds in 2017.
Tennessee’s new Civil Rights Crimes Cold Case Law of 2018, signed by Governor Bill Haslam in May, mandates a statewide survey of cold civil rights crimes and directs referral of “viable” cases for prosecution. District Attorney Brown feels that this is such a case.
William’s body is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave in Taylor Cemetery in Haywood County. The University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Department has volunteered its services in locating his grave, exhuming his remains, and any evidence the grave contains. A postmortem examination will be conducted.
His remains will be re-interred with honor and dignity, and permanently marked in a manner befitting his station as a civil rights hero.
An NAACP official called Williams “the first martyr of the NAACP.”