BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Seventy-five years after he was killed amid a drive to register black voters, a man historians believe to be the first NAACP member slain for daring to speak up for civil rights was remembered at a memorial service Saturday in the small West Tennessee town where he lost his life.
More than 500 people attended the service at a high school gymnasium to honor Elbert Williams, who was killed on June 20, 1940.
Williams was taken from his home by a group of men led by a police officer, and his body was found later in the Hatchie River. His slaying was never solved and his assailants were never identified.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks spoke at the service and called Williams a martyr whose courage and determination should be emulated three-quarters of a century later as the nation continues to deal with violent acts fueled by racism.
Brooks noted the slayings earlier this week in Charleston, South Carolina, where authorities say a 21-year-old white man joined a prayer meeting inside a historic black church and shot nine people dead.
Like Williams, Brooks said those individuals are also martyrs, whose sacrifices should instill a “greater sense of determination” to stamp out racism in America.
Note: For more, see the Jackson Sun. An excerpt:
Brownsville has come a long way since, but still has a long way to go, according to Mayor Bill Rawls Jr. Last year, Rawls was elected as Brownsville’s first African-American mayor.
“As we fight to bring our community together … the struggle continues,” he said.
Cornell William Brooks, NAACP national president, said Tennessee has some of the strictest voting laws in the country to this day. One in 10 African Americans in the state do not have voter IDs, he said.
But civil rights movement martyrs did not die in vain, he said. Countless lives were taken as a consequence of their beliefs and convictions. Although Williams’ story is not well-known, he was an ordinary man with extraordinary courage.