Tennessee Cold Case Office opens at Cordell Hull
A wall at the new cold case office in the Cordell Hull Building features photos of civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks. (Photo: Sam Stockard)
Four years after the General Assembly passed legislation creating a cold case office to delve into decades-old civil rights crimes, the office opened its doors in the Cordell Hull Building.
Legislation signed by former Gov. Bill Haslam in May 2018 created the Tennessee Civil Rights Crimes, Information, Reconciliation, and Research Center, in addition to mandating a statewide survey of civil rights crime cold cases and directing cases for prosecution.
The center will act as a clearinghouse for information, depending largely on the U.S. Department of Justice, district attorneys general and people who make requests for cold cases to be reopened.
The office is filled with photos and quotes from infamous cases such as Emmett Till’s murder, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Rosa Parks’ civil rights case and more.
“I’m focusing on the reconciliation part to bring us together. Everybody has been hurt, and we can’t let our hurt separate us,” said Yolanda Arnold, executive director of the Minority Affairs Office, who will run the research center.
The opening comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s signing of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act in late March, a bipartisan bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime. The law’s passage came 67 years after the 14-year-old Black teen was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
The Till case was closed in December 2021, four years after being reopened, when the Department of Justice cited lack of evidence to push forward. Till’s abductors, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted of the murder in the 1950s by an all-white jury, and even though they admitted later to killing Till in a magazine article, double jeopardy laws averted another trial.
Arnold said a break-through in the Till case could have provided some precedent for future civil rights cold cases.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally was among state officials and staff who toured the center when it opened last week.
“I think it’s very important,” McNally said. “I think the way this is set up for peace and reconciliation and justice, I think those are some very important things that we all have a lot to learn about.”
The center was created through the legislative efforts of state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, who handed the bill off to former Rep. Johnnie Turner, another Memphis Democrat who left office four years ago. She worked with former Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican now serving as U.S. District Court judge in Memphis, to pass the measure in 2018.
The bill’s passage immediately spurred District Attorney General Garry Brown of Haywood County to reopen the murder case of NAACP leader Elbert Williams, who was killed in 1940 as he led voter registration efforts in Brownsville. Williams was taken from his home the night of June 20, 1940, locked in the Brownsville city jail and interrogated. When his wife went to the jail that night to find him, he wasn’t there and was never seen alive again.
Three days later, his body was pulled from the Hatchie River six miles south of Brownsville. The Haywood County coroner held an inquest on the river bank and found the cause of death to be “by foul means by parties unknown.”
First-degree murder has no statute of limitations in Tennessee. But no break-throughs have been made in the case, according to Arnold, and Brown has retired from office.
Former state Rep. John DeBerry, who now works as a key adviser to Gov. Bill Lee, pointed out reconciliation is not possible without justice as he toured the research center.
“These cases where there are those who have brutally murdered and taken a life of other individuals and gotten away with it, even if they are gone, the record needs to be made so that folks can heal and find closure,” DeBerry said.
State Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, noted hate crimes and lynchings are still being perpetrated.
“It’s just amazing to know that we have come this far to have it out in the open because when I was coming up you couldn’t even talk about it,” said Cooper, who is 92.
A former school teacher, Cooper said schools were prohibited for years from teaching Black history, then finally got one week, then a month, February, which is Black History Month.
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