Brownsville, Tenn., police officers snatched Elbert Williams from his home in the middle of the night on June 20, 1940. His body was found—beaten and with bullet wounds—three days later in the Hatchie River. The authorities, without investigating his murder, had him buried in an unmarked grave, according to the committee organized to establish his memorial.
But he wasn’t forgotten. The Jackson Sun reports that Williams, believed to be the first NAACP member killed for participating in civil rights work, received a proper memorial service in Brownsville on Saturday, 75 years after his slaying. Williams and his wife, Annie, both charter members of the town’s NAACP chapter, were leading a voter-registration effort when Williams was killed.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, the keynote speaker at the event to honor Williams, said, “Martyrs don’t always give their lives; their lives are often taken,” according to the Jackson Sun. “He put his name on the line; he put his life on the line; he put his legacy on the line. He signed his name and then had the audacity to speak up.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that a retired white lawyer from Brownsville wants Williams’ body exhumed and the case reopened. “We should do everything we can do to see who killed this man,” Jim Emison, 71, told AP. “If there is anybody in a group that may have done it that’s still living, they need to be brought to justice.”