Elbert Williams

Background

In May 1940, members of the newly formed Brownsville, Tennessee chapter of the NAACP attempted to register to vote for the upcoming presidential election. This voter registration drive provoked a backlash of social and economic reprisals against NAACP members, ultimately leading to the kidnap of Elisha Davis and brutal murder of Elbert Williams.

After midnight on June 16, 1940, a mob of approximately 60 white men, led by Night Marshal Tip Hunter, abducted Elisha Davis from his home. The mob took Davis to the nearby Fork Deer River Bottom where they threatened to kill him if he did not reveal the names of NAACP members and tell them about the group’s plans.  After Davis revealed the information, the mob told him to leave town and promised they would kill him if he ever returned.  Davis immediately fled Brownsville. His family followed soon afterwards, leaving behind their land, possessions, livestock, and a thriving service station that Elisha had operated.

On the night of June 20 the mob returned, this time to the home of Elbert Williams, the secretary of the local NAACP chapter. The mob abducted Williams and locked him in jail with Elisha’s brother, Thomas Davis.  Night Marshal Tip Hunter released Thomas Davis later that night but continued to hold Williams. Elbert’s wife, Annie Williams, searched in vain for her husband for three days until his body was found floating in the Hatchee River. Annie Williams identified the body, which showed visible signs of torture, as that of her husband. She then fled Brownsville for her own safety.

Legal Status

The NAACP mounted a national effort to redress the offences in Haywood County.  Thurgood Marshall and Walter White traveled to Brownsville to conduct an investigation, gathering affidavits that revealed the identities of mob members.  Meanwhile, the state of Tennessee conducted its own probe into the events, but this ended when a local grand jury failed to return any indictments. The Department of Justice ordered an FBI investigation due to pressure from the NAACP. However, the inquest revealed little by focusing on unsubstantiated claims that Communists infiltrated the NAACP. During the investigation FBI agents purportedly worked closely with Night Marshal Tip Hunter, who was likely present during many of their interviews.  The FBI reported finding no witnesses to Williams’ murder or Davis’ kidnapping.

Elbert Williams lost his life and seven other NAACP members and their families fled Haywood County in 1940 because of the attacks on the voting rights campaign.  Annie Williams began her life anew in New York. Elisha Davis fled first to Alamo and then to Jacksonville, Tennessee, where he reunited with Nann and their children.  In October 1940, Elisha Davis and his family relocated permanently to Niles, Michigan where he remained until his death.