- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

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.

“The same way the death of Elbert Williams gave our forebears more fuel, more inspiration … we have to look at what happened in Charleston and grow more determined, not less determined; more driven, not less driven to make this country what it should be,” he said.

A mixture of blacks and whites attended the memorial for Williams, one of the charter members of the Haywood County NAACP branch.

At that time, there was an effort to disband the branch and run its members out of town. Some did leave, but Williams stayed behind and continued to register black voters.

Henri Giles grew up in a town not far from Brownsville, and is a member of the Haywood County NAACP branch. She said the unity at the memorial service for Williams was inspiring.

“It’s just very significant to me that people of different backgrounds can acknowledge what happened, and then come together to memorialize this man who was an early civil rights fighter,” Giles said.

Following the memorial service, a historical marker was unveiled in Williams’ honor, and a plaque was dedicated in the cemetery where he’s believed to be buried.

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