An old black-and-white photo on Jim Emison's desk haunts him and goads him to right a long-buried wrong. In the photo, a man named Elbert Williams peers into the camera, along with other charter members of the NAACP's Brownsville branch, an audacious group of men and women who registered black voters in the early days of the civil rights movement. Williams would be dead the following year, killed by unknown assailants in Brownsville, Tennessee, on June 20, 1940—martyred for civil rights long before NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in 1963. Historians believe Williams to be the first NAACP member killed for daring to speak up for civil rights. The Justice Department initially ordered the case presented to a federal grand jury, then mysteriously reversed itself and closed the case in early 1942.
The 71-year-old retired attorney feels compelled to solve the case, an obsession that grew out of things heard when he was a child, especially hearing his father, grandfather, and uncle—all lawyers—talk about lynchings and other atrocities against African-Americans. "We should do everything we can do to see who killed this man," Emison says. "If there is anybody in a group that may have done it that's still living, they need to be brought to justice." He wants the case reopened and Williams' body exhumed. He believes that could lead to a murder weapon, considering Williams' wife—who identified the body—said she saw what looked like bullet holes in his chest. Emison recently turned his findings over to Justice Department officials who he says are giving Williams' case serious consideration despite the DOJ's announcement last year that it will likely stop prosecuting civil rights-era murders that occurred in the South. Read more on Emison's quest. (Read more Tennessee stories.)