June 20th, 1940

NAACP Leader Elbert Williams Lynched in Brownsville, Tennessee

In 1940, 75 percent of the 19,000 people living in Brownsville, Tennessee, were African American. African Americans had been prevented from voting in Brownsville since 1884. In May 1940, members of the Brownsville chapter of the NAACP organized a voting rights drive. One month after the drive began, on June 20, 1940, NAACP leader Elbert Williams was abducted from his home in Brownsville by a group of white men headed by the local sheriff and the night marshal. Three days later, Mr. Williams’s lifeless and brutalized body was found in the Hatchie River. He was thirty-one years old.

A few days prior to Mr. Williams’s lynching, fellow NAACP leader Elisha Davis was abducted from his home by the same posse. Mr. Davis survived the encounter but was ordered to leave Brownsville or face death upon return. In the months following Mr. Williams’s lynching, up to forty more families were permanently driven from the community under threats of violence from the white mob. African Americans who remained in Brownsville were prohibited from meeting in groups, even for church services, and two African American men were beaten to death after being arrested by the same night marshal who had helped to abduct Mr. Williams and Mr. Davis.

Despite investigations launched by local authorities, the Department of Justice, and the F.B.I., charges were never lodged against the well-known men responsible. According to one contemporary observer, the perpetrators of the abuses and murders “can be seen in Brownsville each day going about their work as though they had killed only a rabbit.” As a result of the harassment, violence, and murder of its leaders, the Brownsville NAACP dissolved in 1940, and a new chapter was not formed until 1961.