Tru Story Exclusive: About Elbert Williams
If Flags Could Talk: Written and Curated by Leslie McGraw
Thank you for tuning into the Tru Story blog series: About Elbert Williams. Beginning in June, I began to address circumstances surrounding related to one of the nation’s forgotten heroes, Elbert Williams. June 20 marked the 75th anniversary of his brutal murder of Elbert Williams in rural Brownsville Tennessee. Elbert was a 31 year old, charter member and secretary of the National Advancement of the Association of Colored People (NAACP) in Haywood County,Tennessee. His contributions were recognized in downtown Brownsville on Saturday, June 20. Although I hold a personal connection with all of the series on Tru Story, this one is especially personal as Elbert Williams was my Uncle.
This first blog post in the Tru Story Exclusive series was written by guest blogger, Jim Emison, a retired attorney and cold case investigative lawyer turned author. This blog post, although related, is a little bit less About Elbert and more about the historic removal of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina.
Oops, My Flagg Badd…
On June 20, I penned the following on this blog:
Today, I speak from a place of healing and pride in the accomplishments and perseverance of my family and am honored to be “home” in Brownsville to commemorate “Uncle Elbert” with a historic marker in downtown Brownsville. I will still be able to see that darn confederate flag in the background, but it’s a start.
To my untrained Midwest eyes, I truly thought I saw a Confederate Flag waving atop the Confederate memorial in downtown Brownsville. However, last week, when I had the chance to see the pictures taken at the unveiling, I realized that this was probably the state flag of Tennessee. Although the state flag of Tennessee was originally designed to share solidarity
and sympathy with the battle flag of the Confederacy, it is still not the same thing as a Confederate flag.
Relationship Between Uncle Elbert and Confederate Flag
One might ask, what does the removal of the Confederate flag have to do with the terrorist attack on the 9 people killed in Charleston last month? Furthermore, what does the Confederate flag have to do with Elbert Williams? A response in full could take several book lengths, but there are three words that sum it up in the interim (between now and if I ever decide to write a book about the subject).
The first word is Fear.
Since the inception of the Confederate flag, it has symbolized fear and lack of control for black people in this country. Could you imagine being a slave and seeing the terrible carnage of war and knowing that, according to how the war went, it could mean you being freed? That’s especially important when you factor in that slaves were only “the spoils” of war wagered to settle an argument about issues other than humanity. After emancipation, anytime the Confederate flag was waived black people were mentally taken back to days of fear, war, and bondage. I cannot imagine what it felt like walking around “free” in a city where the Confederacy was still worshiped both privately and publicly. Imagine family members and friends of Elbert Williams that were terrorized, beaten, lynched, and vandalized seeking justice. Where would they find this so-called justice? Would they be bold enough in 1940 to walk past the same white members who led the night terrors to the courthouse adorned with Confederate fare to plead for justice? Those days of injustice and enforced silence are equally as traumatic as slavery to me. I was not raised with the same fear, but when I visited Tennessee for the first time last month, I felt a fear that I had not felt before; I felt the fear of my ancestors.
The second word is Control.
Any white person, regardless of background, education, or status, can waive the Confederate flag and signify unity and power among all those who stand with him or her. I am sure that must feel empowering for people like the terrorist who killed the innocent church members in Charleston last month. On the other side of the same coin, the Confederate flag is a symbol of the lack of control for people of color.
The third word is History.
The Confederate flag symbolizes…and even celebrates, dark times and situations in our country’s history. Waiving the battle flag of the Confederacy is celebrating “the good ol’ days” for white people and the worst days for black people at the same time. American history has been censored and skewed for centuries. Losing the flag is a start to adjusting history, and the future, to include the contributions of all Americans. I never thought much of symbols until I witnessed the unveiling of a historic marker dedicated to my Uncle Elbert last month. In a town where black people lived and thrived for hundreds of years, he was the first to be honored. For all those years, a message of value was communicated for all the white people in the community via markers, monuments, plaques, and more. Indirectly, a message was communicated for all the black people in the community was conveyed that their contributions, sacrifices, and lives had not mattered. I watched history sit a little more upright on that day. If flags could talk I am sure the American flag would have cried out “Hoorah”. I am not sure what the Confederate flag would have said…
Below is a curated “storify” of social media reactions to today’s historic moment in South Carolina’s history. Make sure to scroll down for the live broadcast!