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October 15, 2022 is the first ever Elbert Williams Voter Empowerment Day, in memory of the very first NAACP member in this country to die fighting for civil rights. During his 31 years, he lived (and died) for the the ability to walk about this earth without being targeted because of his skin color, to earn a living wage, and to gain the vote.

Below are excerpts from a five page letter issued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017

Creation of the NAACP and Early Attempts to Register to Vote 

“According to our review of the FBI investigation, Elbert Williams and other residents of Brownsville, Tennessee, with express concerns about police brutality, formed a chapter of the NAACP in 1939. They hoped that through the NAACP they might begin to register and exercise their right to vote, thereby addressing the issues in the Brownsville community. In May 1940, a delegation of the NAACP, which included brothers Thomas and Elisha Davis, and Reverend Buster Walker, went to the Brownsville County Registrar’s office to register to vote in the 1940 Presidential election. Upon arrival, they were turned away and told that registration would not open until August.

After their attempt to register, Elisha Davis, who owned and operated a local gas station, was warned that he would be run out of town if voter registration efforts continued. Walker confirmed those accounts and faced similar threats. Thomas Davis, who worked at a local movie theater, was threatened with the loss of his job by Ed Lee, a manager at the local Coca Cola bottling plant.”

The Murder of Elbert Williams

“The investigative file indicates that on June 20, 1940, Elbert Williams contacted Thomas Davis about hosting a meeting of NAACP members from both Brownsville and Jackson, Tennessee. On the evening of that same day, three white men, including Ed Lee, the Coca Cola plant manager, and Brownsville police officer Tip Hunter, went to Thomas Davis’s home, took him and forced him into a car. The men demanded to know what Davis and Williams discussed earlier in the day, believing the conversation was about registering blacks to vote. Davis lied to the men and said that Williams sought to buy Elisha Davis’s filling station, which Davis had abandoned when he fled town. The men then drove Davis to Elbert Williams’s home.

Williams’s wife, Annie, later reported that Hunter and the others took Elbert Williams from the home, barefoot and still in his pajamas. First, the men took Davis and Williams to the police station. Hunter admitted that he interrogated the men about the work of the local NAACP. Davis was eventually released, but Williams remained in custody. At about midnight, Annie Williams went to Brownsville city jail and inquired about her husband’s whereabouts. She was told that he was no longer in police custody.

On June 23, 1940, Elbert Williams’s body was found in the Hatchie River in Brownsville. The funeral home operator reported that Williams’s body was so badly decomposed that he could not determine whether there was any evidence of violence. Annie Williams, however, viewed her husband’s body and later reported that he was beaten and bruised, with holes in his chest.”

For 75 years, the name Elbert Williams was seldom heard in West Tennessee and whispered even less in Michigan, where my grandmother and other family members sought refuge from the terror campaign launched on them.  

On this 15th day of October, this proclamation and resolve to support the empowerment and enfranchisement of voters from Michigan to Tennessee, has been made by his great grand-niece, Leslie McGraw, on behalf of all of his descendants by blood and by civic acts of voting and community involvement.