Decades-Old Tennessee Civil Rights Efforts Lead to Local Voting Activism

A Family of Activists

You could say being a voting rights activist is in Ann Arbor resident Leslie McGraw’s blood. 

It all began back in 1939 in Brownsville, Tennessee when her great-granduncle Elbert Williams, an African-American civil rights leader, and four others founded a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

He holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first known NAACP member to be lynched for his civil rights beliefs and activities.

Elbert Williams’ legacy

Although African Americans were legally allowed to vote, racially biased voter registration obstacles made it impossible for them to do so in Haywood County, where Brownsville is located, as well as three other counties in the state.

The goal of their chapter was to register African-American voters so they could then exercise their right to vote.

After five of the NAACP chapter members unsuccessfully attempted to register in 1940, they were threatened by community members including the police chief, mayor, and former mayor. Treats claimed that there would be trouble if African American citizens continued this sort of behavior.

Soon after, Williams was forcibly removed from his home, interrogated, and supposedly released although he was never seen alive again and his body was found three days later in the Hatchie River.

Provided by Leslie McGraw.

Over the years, McGraw had heard about her great-granduncle’s powerful legacy from her grandmother.

In 2015, known family members including McGraw were contacted by Jim Emison, a cold case investigative lawyer in Tennessee. Thanks to Emison, the case was reopened in 2017 pursuant to the Department of Justice’s Cold Case Initiative and the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007

Because of Emison’s efforts, McGraw shares that today her great-granduncle’s name is no longer just being “whispered as a warning,” but is now “discussed and honored at the country’s highest institutions and law schools.”

McGraw takes action

But what really spurred her to action was a vivid dream about her great-granduncle urging her to “educate the voters, learn about the vote and your rights so no one can take that away from you.” 

On October 15, 2022, the 114th anniversary of his birth, she declared the date to be Elbert Williams Voter Empowerment Day

She also launched The Voting Corner which provides a “judgment-free dashboard and a crash course on voting including what to do before you vote, how to vote, and what to do after you vote.” She urges community members to consider volunteering at the polls or in other ways for the upcoming election and, of course, exercise your right to vote!