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Attorney Feels Driven to Solve 1940 Slaying of NAACP Member

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In this June 10, 2015, photo, retired attorney Jim Emison sits in his home office in Alamo, Tenn. In 2012, Emison was researching a story he planned to write about a court case when he came across an online article about two lynchings in 1937 and 1940. The latter was about Elbert Williams, a charter member of the local NAACP branch. Williams was killed by unknown assailants on June 20, 1940, more than two decades before NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down by a Klansman outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home. Williams' slaying was never solved, but Emison hopes to change that. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In this June 10, 2015, photo, retired attorney Jim Emison sits in his home office in Alamo, Tenn.  (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Lucas L. Johnson II, ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

 

BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The man in the black-and-white photograph on Jim Emison’s desk seems to look right into him, all but demanding to not be forgotten. Emison is doing his best to oblige.

The photo features a man named Elbert Williams and two dozen other charter members of the NAACP’s Brownsville branch, an audacious group of men and women who registered black voters in West Tennessee in the early days of the civil rights movement.

Williams would be dead the following year, killed by unknown assailants in Brownsville on June 20, 1940 — more than two decades before NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down by a Klansman outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963. Williams’ slaying was never solved, but Emison, a 71-year-old white, retired attorney, hopes to change that.

“We should do everything we can do to see who killed this man,” Emison said. “If there is anybody in a group that may have done it that’s still living, they need to be brought to justice.”

Three-quarters of a century after what some historians believe to be the first NAACP member killed for daring to speak up for civil rights, Emison has gotten federal authorities to take another look at it.

In the process, Emison just might make peace with a ghost from his own family’s past.

Emison’s obsession with Williams’ death grew more out of what he didn’t hear than what he did.

When he was a child, Emison sometimes heard his father, grandfather and uncle — all lawyers — talk about lynchings and other atrocities against African Americans. Once his uncle showed him a tree not far from Brownsville where he said a black man had been hanged.

Emison’s relatives seldom discussed the stories behind the crimes — doing so ran counter to a code of silence typical of small Southern towns. White people who knew about violent racist incidents usually didn’t share their secrets. Black people who had an inkling kept their mouths shut out of fear.

But Emison said the hanging bothered his father, and he talked to him about it.

His father’s uncle had been the Crockett County sheriff. Emison said a mob came to the jail one day in 1929 to seize and lynch an arrested man named Joseph Boxley, who had been accused of assaulting a woman. He said it’s unclear whether the mob forcibly took the man, or the sheriff willingly turned over the key. ButEmison said he’ll never forget his father saying he was afraid his uncle “did not act honorably that night,” words that have haunted Emison to this day.

“When it’s somebody that’s in your family, who may have been able to prevent it and didn’t, then that’s disturbing,” he said.

As a young boy growing up in the South, those conversations fostered a sense of outrage, a growing desire for justice that stayed with Emison during more than 40 years of trying cases in the Brownsville courthouse. Many of his clients were African American. Some of them he represented pro bono.

After all those years in the courthouse, Emison said he was shocked that he hadn’t heard about Williams’ case. And as he learned more, his anger only grew.

“It was just like he was discarded; valueless, worthless,” he said.

In 2012, Emison was researching a story he planned to write about a court case when he came across an online article about two lynchings in 1937 and 1940.

The latter was Williams’ killing. Emison ordered FBI and Department of Justice case files from the U.S. National Archives. To his surprise, officials there sent him un-redacted copies.

The records showed that Brownsville police, upset because the local NAACP branch was registering blacks to vote, had led an effort to force its members out of town. Then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge said in a letter to U.S. District Attorney William Clanahan that the “obvious purpose” of the police and others had been to “frighten the entire colored population of Brownsville and thus prevent qualified Negroes from exercising their franchise.”

Some of the members left town, but Williams stayed behind. When the police got a tip that he was planning an NAACP meeting at his home, a group of men led by police officer Tip Hunter went to his residence, said they needed to question him outside and then took him away. Williams’ body was found three days later in the nearby Hatchie River.

No autopsy was performed. A coroner’s jury ruled the body was “decomposed so badly we could not make thorough examination” and that the cause of death was believed to be by “foul means by persons unknown.”

Williams’ wife, Annie, and his father identified the body, and she soon moved to New York. Later, in an exclusive interview with the Amsterdam News, a black weekly in New York, Annie Williams said the local authorities had tried to prevent her from seeing her slain husband, and that “the coroner had already issued the order to have the body buried as soon as possible.”

“It was only because I insisted that they let me look at it. It was a terrible sight, but I recognized him. His head was swollen twice its normal size. There were two holes in his chest that looked like bullet holes, the skin on his arms, legs, buttocks was bruised and blistered. His arms and legs, I heard, had been tied with rope and his body weighted down by a heavy log tied around his neck.”

The Justice Department initially ordered the case presented to a federal grand jury, then mysteriously reversed itself and closed the case in early 1942. It did so in spite of evidence gathered by Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel to the NAACP, who went on to become the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African-American justice in 1967.

Emison wants the case reopened and Williams’ body exhumed, despite some resistance from a few people in the community, including one who told him “the past ought to be left to die, and not resurrected.”

But Emison has ignored them. He’s spent hours interviewing Williams’ descendants, relatives of NAACP members from the branch and even family members of two police officers — both now deceased — who went to Williams’ home that night. Relatives of the officers declined interviews with The Associated Press.

Emison even has suspicions about the killers. He believes exhuming the body could lead to a murder weapon, considering Williams’ wife said she saw what looked like bullet holes in his chest. Emison recently turned his findings over to Justice Department officials who he said are giving Williams’ case serious consideration despite the department’s announcement last year that it will likely stop prosecuting civil rights-era murders that occurred in the South.

Williams’ slaying wasn’t among the cases the Justice Department re-examined in recent years, in part because it hadn’t resurfaced until Emison started pushing.

“I am optimistic that they will be interested in this one,” Emison said. “It’s older, but it is of great historic importance.”

Edward Stanton III, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, told The Associated Press the department is reviewing materials from the case, but didn’t say when a decision will be made.

“We’re giving a strong look at the information provided,” Stanton said.

Leslie McGraw, Williams’ great-niece, called Emison’s efforts “validating.”

“It didn’t seem like anybody was really interested in seeking justice,” said McGraw, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Cornell William Brooks, the NAACP’s national president, spoke at a memorial for Williams on Saturday in Brownsville that was attended by more than 500 people. Brooks flew in from Charleston, South Carolina, where just a few days earlier a white gunman killed nine people during a prayer meeting at a historic black church.

During his speech, Brooks called Williams “the first martyr of the NAACP,” and he said those people killed at the church are also martyrs who won’t be soon forgotten.

“These two things are important together,” Brooks said. “Because what it says to me is that no sacrifice should be forgotten; no sacrifice should ever disappear into the sands of time.”

Following the memorial service, a historical marker was unveiled in Williams’ honor and Emison hopes the renewed attention won’t end there.

Patricia Sullivan, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, wrote about Williams’ case in “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.”

She said his death speaks to the courage required to keep up the fight for civil rights.

“It’s central to understanding what the struggle has been about, and is about,” Sullivan said. “When I look at someone like Elbert Williams … you see that people were willing to risk everything if they thought change was possible.”

When he ponders that photograph on his desk, Emison said he too thinks about the courage it took for the branch members, particularly Williams, to keep pushing to register blacks to vote — knowing they might die.

Emison said that spirit pushes him to solve Williams’ case.

“This is something that I can do for civil rights,” he said. “This is justice.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Activism

After Wood Street Clearance, Homeless People Stay

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move. 

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Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.
Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

On the morning of November 8, members of both Oakland’s Encampment Management Team, Public Works, and Police Department came to an area encompassing about 1/5 of a mile from Wood Street and Grand Avenue to Wood Street and 26th Street with the stated goal of clearing the location of homeless people. But after the attempted clearance, homeless people remained in the area.

“The objective was to move as many people as possible,” wrote Oakland Communications Director Karen Boyd in an e-mail. “But that could not be accomplished without the full cooperation of the community.”

“You can’t push us back any further than this,” said homeless resident Jessie Parker, a 63-year-old lifelong Oaklander who came to live on Wood Street after being shot in the leg. The injury prevented him from being able to do the physical movement required for the construction and electrical work he had done in the past. On November 4, the city put up pink notices informing him that starting in four days they would force him to vacate the area he’s lived in for about nine years, but he, like dozens of others living in vehicles, tents or makeshift homes along Wood Street, didn’t leave.

Parker’s statement references the fact that Wood Street is one of the westernmost streets in West Oakland. A little further west from where Parker lives is land owned by Caltrans under the 880 overpass where still more homeless people live, as well as a 1.5 acre plot of land belonging to a company called Gamechanger LLC. To the east are businesses and residential areas.

After about two years in delays, Gamechanger agreed to lease its land to the city for $1 a year and the city opened a Safe RV Parking site on July 7 on the company’s land through the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency.

In the Safe RV Parking site, residents who own RVs and trailers can legally live in them and receive services. It’s unclear how long this service will last, as the lease between GameChanger and the city can expire by November of next year. That same lease laid out plans to allow 75 RVs or trailers space to park, but while walking through the site on November 10, this writer counted 29 RVs while half of the site sat vacant. The site is not available for many residents, like Parker, who don’t have an RV or a trailer.

“I never received an offer to move in,” said Parker, who lives in a truck. “It’s for RVs only.”

The site opening has put other residents at risk of displacement who can’t or don’t want to access it. Since Oakland’s City Council unanimously passed its Encampment Management Policy in October of last year, despite protests and critical public comments during five hours of a meeting, city policy now states those living within 25 feet of such sites can face clearance.

Although their policy now allows it, the city had not attempted to move nor even encouraged people who are living near the Safe RV Parking site to leave the area until the November 8 operation. But recent communications from Justin Tombolesi, who is the constituent liaison for District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, have led advocates and homeless people to believe the company is now pressuring the city to force people to leave the area. In a text message to a homeless resident who lives near Wood Street, Tombolesi wrote “Gamechanger is suing the city because people are too close to the RV site.”

Gamechanger denies suing or pressuring the city. When asked if the company was suing or threatening to sue the city, the company’s lawyer, Pat Smith of Smith LLP, responded in an email, writing “Not at all — no thought of suing the city. The city is solely in charge of the site and ownership has no involvement or concern over how the city is handling things.”

In an e-mail, Boyd wrote that “No filings or actions to terminate the lease have been served upon the city,” but that the city has “spoken with legal counsel representing GameChanger’s lot regarding the city’s plans to create compliance.”

In another text message to the same resident, Tombolesi also claimed the city would allow residents living on Wood Street to move to a vacant portion of land off the street and just north of the Safe RV Parking site during the November 8 closure operation. No residents have moved into that location and residents, as well advocates who were on site that day, claim no one was invited to do so. Boyd said the city offered nine spaces in the city’s Community Cabins, and five spaces in a rapid rehousing program called The Holland. One resident accepted a space in the Community Cabins, which is a program that offers small, unheated shelter in shed-like spaces made by the Tuff Shed company.

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move.

Although the closure operation was originally slated to occur over three days between Monday November 8 and Wednesday November 10, no one from the city came back after the first day.

“The ability to proceed Monday impacted the entire operation,” wrote Boyd in an e-mail, “and activities for the following days were cancelled.”

Although homeless residents did not leave Wood Street, Oakland’s Police Department’s Public Information Officer Kim Armstead said the department did tow six vehicles for long expired registration on November 6 and 7 in the area in preparation for the closure.

According to Armstead, the department avoided towing vehicles that served as people’s homes, as the department, following the cities’ direction, has “agreed not to tow vehicles where there is clear evidence they are being used as shelter.” Armstead also said on November 8, OPD supported the city operation with two officers, one sergeant, and six police service techs who provided traffic control and security for city workers.

One homeless resident named Evangeline said the towing of her and her husband’s vehicle has made it difficult to go grocery shopping and to visit her mother, who just had a heart attack. The couple can’t afford to pay the fees to get the car back, so it will remain in the tow yard.

“We’re really stuck,” she said.

Although residents like Parker avoided being moved from Wood Street, it’s unclear when or if the city will come back to move them. According to Parker, a member of the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency has been working to secure some form of permanent housing for him, and he’s hopeful that the person will be successful.

“I’m a little older now so my peak interest is getting back into housing,” said Parker. “If I get into housing, I’m sure I won’t go back to this. I can’t take these harsh elements no more.”

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Activism

African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) helps support 25th annual turkey drive in East Oakland

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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The African American Sports & Entertainment Group came out to support the 25th annual Community Giving Foundation Turkey drive at Verdese Carter Park in East Oakland.

Hosted by founder and organizer Marlon McWilson, the turkey drive that started in 1997 has now donated over 35,000 Turkey’s through McWilson’s foundation. In attendance were Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, Oakland PAL, California Assembly Member Mia Bonta (AD-18) along with husband and Attorney General for the State of California Rob Bonta. Assembly Member Bonta also congratulated the AASEG on their recent unanimous 8-0 approval to enter negotiations with the City of Oakland on an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) to purchase the city’s half interest of the coliseum land, and looks forward to working with the team.

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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Bay Area

Get Booster Shot, Celebrate Thanksgiving Holiday Safely, State Officials Say

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

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According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”
According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

Golden State public health officials are recommending that Californians take COVID-19 booster shots to prevent a resurgence of the disease and to celebrate the holidays safely with their loved ones.

“It’s not too late to get it,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Department, referring to the COVID-19 booster shot. He was speaking at a vaccine clinic in Los Angeles County last week.

“Get that added protection for the Thanksgiving gatherings you may attend,” he said.

Last week, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine boosters for all adults in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed with an endorsement of the booster vaccine, recommending it for people over age 50, and anyone 18 and older who is at higher risk.

The CDC loosened the language for all other adults, saying anyone over age 18 “may” take the shot.

California officials say the booster shots are plenty and available throughout the state.

“If you think you will benefit from getting a booster shot, I encourage you,” said Ghaly. “Supplies are available. There are many sites across the state – thousands in fact.”

On Saturday, the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup completed a separate review of the federal government’s approval process for the booster shots and also recommended that “individuals 18 or older who have completed their primary vaccination series,” take the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters.

California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington state came together last year and created the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup. The group, made up of scientists, medical professionals and public health experts, is charged with reviewing COVID-19 vaccine safety.

Over the last two weeks, COVID-19 infections across the United States have increased at a rate of nearly 33%, according to the CDC.

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

“COVID-19 boosters are available to all Californians 18 [and over]! Walk-in clinics are open statewide with no appointment necessary – like this mobile clinic in Avenal. Find a clinic or pharmacy near you and get yours today,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office chimed in on Twitter.

Newsom has pushed hard for the vaccine booster since he received his last month.

“Great news for the rest of the country. The holidays are here — make sure to keep your immunity up and protect yourself and your loved ones. Get your booster,” Newsom tweeted on November 18.

According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.

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