Elbert Williams is the first known member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to be murdered for his civil rights activities. Williams was born on October 15, 1908 in rural Haywood County, Tennessee, the son of farmer Albert Williams and wife Mary Green Williams.
In 1929, Williams married Annie Mitchell. After trying farming, the couple moved in the early 1930s to Brownsville, the county seat, where they worked for a laundry until Williams’ murder in 1940.
In 1939, the Williamses became charter members of Brownsville’s NAACP Branch.
On May 6, 1940, five members of Brownsville’s NAACP Branch unsuccessfully attempted to register to vote. No African American had been allowed to register to vote in Haywood County during the 20th Century. The next day, the threats began.
Early on the morning of June 16, would-be registrant Elisha Davis was abducted from home by a white mob led by Brownsville policemen Tip Hunter and Charles Read, taken to a nearby swamp, surrounded, and threatened with death unless he named members of the Brownsville NAACP. After naming some, Davis was forced to immediately leave the county, under threat of death should he ever return. Many African American families fled. The Williamses did not.
Late on the night of June 20, policemen Hunter and Read, and a third man, Ed Lee, manager of the local Coca-Cola bottling company, took Williams from his home and jailed him. There they questioned him about an NAACP meeting he was suspected of planning. Hunter claimed that he released Williams who never returned home, and was never again seen alive.
Three days later, Williams’ corpse was found floating in the nearby Hatchie River. Annie Williams identified her husband’s body, and saw two bullet-like holes in his chest. The Coroner ordered no medical examination, and held his inquest on the riverbank that same morning. The Coroner’s jury’s verdict was "Cause of death: unknown." The Coroner ordered an immediate burial and Williams was buried the same day in an unmarked grave.
A local grand jury found that Williams’ death was caused by “foul violence at the hands of parties unknown.”
Under pressure from the NAACP National Office, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate, and promised a broad inquiry.
NAACP Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall, later a United States Supreme Court Justice, monitored the DOJ/FBI investigation, and travelled to Brownsville to collect evidence.
The DOJ ordered the United States Attorney in Memphis to present the case to a Federal Grand Jury, but then reversed its decision and closed the case, citing insufficient evidence. Thurgood Marshall was livid, but unable to get the case reopened.
Elbert Williams’ murderer was never prosecuted.