Amid the flurry of commemorations and speeches in 2018 near the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, the Tennessee legislature created a center to collect information about unresolved hate crimes in the state during the civil rights movement.
Lawmakers and advocates believe the effort is the first of its kind by a state government. Legislators hoped that state support would encourage Black families to come forward with stories of racial terror hidden for generations, especially as people who lived through the 1950s and 1960s are aging and dying.
But the law to create the Tennessee Civil Rights Crimes, Information, Reconciliation, and Research Center came with no additional funding or staff. Without enough resources for the center to carry out its mission, some advocates and family members of victims who pushed for the center’s formation are worried many stories will be overlooked.
Lack of involvement
They’ve also felt disconnected from the implementation process of the law.
Examples of Tennessee community remembrance projects
Chattanooga: The Ed Johnson Project
Clinton: Green McAdoo Cultural Center
Franklin: The Public
Knoxville: Beck Cultural Exchange Center
Jackson: Jackson Madison County Community Remembrance Project
Memphis: Lynching Sites Project of Memphis
Nashville: We Remember Nashville, Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services
New Market: Highlander Research and Education Center
Weakley: Weakley County Reconciliation Project
Source: Tennesseans for Historical Justice
“I thought by this time, much, much more would have been done,” said Johnnie Turner, a civil rights movement activist who led the center’s creation in 2018 as her final act as a Memphis representative in the Tennessee legislature. “I have been disappointed.”
The center is within the legislature’s Office of Minority Affairs, which has two employees. They are charged with running the center, coordinating a statewide survey of civil rights crimes, applying for grants, managing a website and hotline for reporting past cases, and amplifying volunteer activities across the state. That’s on top of their long-standing duty to advise legislators and prepare research related to issues that people of color face across the state.
Four years after the bill passed, the center struggles to inch forward.
In 2018, legislative staff estimated that the minority affairs office had about $230,000 in unspent funds each year, but the office has not hired anyone since then. In April, a small public exhibit about reconciliation opened on the state Capitol grounds in Nashville. Yolanda Arnold, the executive director of the minority affairs office, said a website sharing victims’ stories and links to various community organizations working to commemorate them is coming in January. In a 2021 report to the legislature, Arnold said the center planned to train students at law schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities to survey their communities about civil rights era crimes starting this year, but there hasn’t been an update since then.
Teresa Grimmette and Cynthia Myers, descendants of 1939 lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond in Arlington, said the center’s creation is emboldening families to the share their stories, but they want to make sure the center has enough resources to bring the information to light.
“You have to include all of them that we know about,” said Grimmette, whose family has been trying to erect a historical marker in Arlington for years. “And make it easy to report: if this happened in your family, make it accessible to people to report it to the center.”
In an emailed statement, Arnold said the center will focus on collecting information about the cases listed by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the federal Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. Four of those cases are in Tennessee: John Larry Bolden of Chattanooga, Richard Lillard of Nashville, Larry Payne of Memphis, and Elbert Williams of Brownsville.
“We consider all civil rights cold cases in Tennessee, and the nation for that matter, to be of great importance because these cases represent human beings that were murdered during a time where their lives were considered insignificant and not worth consideration of justice,” Arnold said.
The U.S. Department of Justice closed each of the Tennessee cases by 2018, citing stale evidence or a lack of applicable federal laws for officials to prosecute.
Tennessee cases on U.S. Department of Justice list of unsolved civil rights crimes
John Larry Bolden
When: May 3, 1958
Status: Case closed on April 15, 2010
Summary: John Larry Bolden was a 15-year-old Black boy who was shot and killed by Chattanooga police officer William Henry Taylor. On May 3, 1958, a woman called the police and said she was “annoyed” by several teens. Taylor attempted to arrest Bolden, but he said the teen “jumped” him. Taylor beat him on the head with a club and Bolden in return threw a trash can at Taylor, according to department records. Taylor then shot Bolden three times, twice in the chest. Bolden died in the hospital the next day. Taylor claimed he shot Bolden in self-defense and was acquitted by a jury. After examining the records, the department said it could not prosecute the case because Taylor died in 1975 and there were no applicable federal civil rights laws at the time to charge him with.
When: July 20, 1958
Status: Case closed on April 15, 2010
Summary: On July 20, 1958, Richard Lillard, a 38-year-old Black man, died after being beaten by guards while in jail. An autopsy showed Lillard suffered eight deep cuts, three fractures, and died from “hemorrhage, shock and cerebral concussion caused by external violence.” Nashville Superintendent John William Burnett, and officers Lucien Harris Debow and Clark Patterson, claimed that Lillard was “deranged” and had to be subdued after he obtained a broom handle and a handheld bludgeoning tool called a blackjack. A witness testified that even after the police confiscated the blackjack and broom, they continued to beat Lillard. All three suspects died by 1986.
When: March 28, 1968
Status: Case closed on July 5, 2011
Summary: In the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march with Memphis sanitation workers on strike, a white police officer, Leslie Jones, shot and killed 17-year-old Larry Payne at his mother’s apartment complex. Jones and his partner had responded to reports of looting at a nearby Sears and chased Payne into a boiler room connected to the apartment complex’s courtyard. As Payne emerged from the room, Jones said he had a knife and shot him in the stomach, killing the teen. Witnesses at the apartment complex said Payne had both hands on his head in surrender. A grand jury that convened shortly after the shooting did not indict Jones. The department closed the case in 2011 because “available evidence is not sufficient to refute the subject’s claim that he believed he had to fire the shotgun in order to defend himself from a possible knife attack.” Jones died in 2019.
When: June 20, 1940
Status: Case closed on Nov. 4, 2018
Summary: Elbert Williams was a member of the newly founded NAACP branch in Brownsville in 1940. He and other members had attempted to register to vote and several were threatened and questioned by police about the organization’s activities. On June 20, Sheriff Samuel “Tip” Hunter abducted Williams and another Black man, Thomas Davis. Davis was later released, but Williams was found dead three days later in the Hatchie River. The department said prosecution was unlikely because of the passage of time and because the exact location of Williams’ body is unknown.
Source: The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division
Various community groups across the state have been working to uncover more information about these and more killings and other racially motivated crimes — even if they don’t lead to prosecution. But that takes more resources than community groups are generally able to fundraise on their own, said Cynthia M. Deitle, a former FBI agent who once led the federal initiative to investigate cold cases of the civil rights era.
“I don’t know what (the legislature) thought was going to happen after they passed it, because you need money to carry that out,” said Deitle, who was also a founding board member for Tennesseans for Historical Justice, a coalition of organizations across the state that pushed for the center’s creation. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of human beings that want to do the work. I think it’s really a resource and money issue.”
In discussions leading up to the bill’s passage, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature were reluctant to spend money on the center.
During a committee meeting in 2017 to draft the legislation, Rep. Tilman Goins, a Republican from Morristown, said the state should rely on the community groups pushing for the legislation to provide information so they wouldn’t “overutilize any of the scarce government resources that we already have…” Still, Goins ultimately co-sponsored the bill despite what he described as opposition from some of his constituents for supporting the center’s formation.
The bill creating the center had been a decade in the making. Turner and another state representative and Democrat from Memphis, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, had introduced resolutions and legislation to urge the state to act on the unsolved crimes since 2008.
With the support of former state senator Mark Norris, a Republican from Collierville, Turner convened a committee of lawmakers in 2017. The committee heard testimony from families who have felt the consequences of the unsolved cases for years. Some shared that they or their ancestors fled Tennessee because they knew they would not receive protection or justice after white supremacists murdered, injured or threatened a loved one.
‘Refugees in our own nation’
“We have literally had refugees in our own nation running from these civil rights crimes,” Hardaway said in 2018 reflecting on the hearings before the bill was passed.
They also heard from community organizations and lawyers who have been collecting information on racial terror cases, including more than 200 lynchings in Tennessee after the Civil War. Staff from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations and the Tennessee State Library attended, but the minority affairs office staff were not invited because the committee initially thought the initiative would be housed elsewhere, Hardaway said.
Jim Emison, a Brownsville lawyer working on a book about Williams’ 1940 lynching, advised the committee and said the center’s mission goes beyond legal battles.
“It’s an effort to set the record straight and to administer whatever justice we can at this late date, including restorative justice,” Emison said in 2018. That can include healing circles with families of the victims and perpetrators, vigils, historical markers, correcting the historical record, among other actions, he said.
Since the bill’s passage in May 2018 to organize information about the cold cases in Tennessee, there has been little communication between the center and the community groups that pushed for the legislation.
Allan Ramsaur, a board member for Tennesseans for Historical Justice, said communication could improve on both sides and that the pandemic also played a role. Ramsaur also has decades of experience in the state legislature as a former lobbyist for Tennessee lawyers and understands the challenges of bureaucracy and budget constraints. But still, he said, the state needs to do more to support grassroots organizations trying to uncover additional information about the racial terror of Tennessee’s past.
No staff, no investigator
“We don’t have staff, we don’t have an investigator,” Ramsaur said of the coalition. “We’ve done what we’ve done through volunteers and through what grants and contributions we’ve been able to scrape together.”
For advocates like Brittany Paschall, when communication breaks down between government and community, it can feel like the victims will be forgotten all over again. Paschall is a middle school teacher and founder of We Remember Nashville, a community organization seeking to share the stories of six reported lynching victims in Davidson County.
“But we don’t want to just stop there,” she said. “Hopefully, this is going to spur you to some type of compassionate action, towards reconciliation, towards justice, towards healing. And so I think that’s why we draw the through-line.”
Hardaway, the state legislator, said the pandemic explains some of the lost momentum but he hopes to revive the effort and find more funding.
“We’re kind of treading water. We need to get everybody back to swimming,” he said. “We know there has to be a reckoning before there can be reconciliation.”