kkk killing

Ku Klux Klan’s prin­ci­pal three reigns of ter­ror are lit­tered with blood­shed. In many cases, retroac­tive jus­tice has been de­liv­ered. but the fam­ily of Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. are still wait­ing

Real Crime - - Contents - Words James McMa­hon

The klans­men who killed Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. never got their just desserts, but there was con­so­la­tion from a deathbed con­fes­sion

Back­ground

24- year- old Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. stands on the brink of the Tyler Good­win Bridge. Be­low his feet swells the Alabama River. He isn’t alone. Four other men stand with him tonight. It is a lit­tle after mid­night. They stand fur­ther back from the edge than he. Fear is in the air. Fury too.

Wil­lie is the only black man on the bridge. As well as be­ing scared, Wil­lie is ex­hausted. He’s been with the men, four mem­bers of the lo­cal branch of the Ku Klux Klan, for hours now – ab­ducted, beaten, tor­tured, plead­ing. One of the men has threat­ened to cas­trate him. They’ve told him he has to ‘ pay’ for his crime of dis­re­spect­ing a white woman. One of the klans­men points his gun at Wil­lie and or­ders him to “hit the wa­ter”. There is a shriek, then a splash.

Three months later, in April, two fish­er­men, 16 kilo­me­tres west of Mont­gomery, cap­i­tal of the state of Alabama, stum­ble upon the de­com­pos­ing body of a young African- Amer­i­can. It is Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. His body is so badly de­stroyed by the el­e­ments that it is im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine the cause of his death.

Born on 13 Novem­ber 1932, Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. worked as a driver for the su­per­mar­ket chain Winn- Dixie. He had only re­cently started work­ing for the com­pany when, at around ten min­utes to mid­night in Jan­uary 1957, he was bun­dled into a car at gun­point by four men: Henry Alexan­der, Ray­mond Britt Jr., Sonny Kyle Liv­ingston and Jimmy York.

Wil­lie wasn’t even sup­posed to be work­ing that night. He’d been called in at the last minute to work the shift of a sick col­league. He couldn’t turn down work: his wife was preg­nant, and his pay cheque sup­ported two sis­ters and his two chil­dren. He’d only stopped his truck to get a soft drink from the store and to check his log book. The light inside his cab was enough to iden­tify him to the four men, who’d been driv­ing around, search­ing.

The deed done, the men re­turned to town. Cal­lously, they joked that their vic­tim had jumped into the river for a swim. Wil­lie’s truck was found the next day, parked out­side the store with the ve­hi­cle’s lights still on.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into how Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. had come to lose his life didn’t seem very high on the list of the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties’ pri­or­i­ties. The killing came at the height of the white kick­back against the civil rights move­ment, specif­i­cally the in­te­gra­tion of mixed race bus ser­vices. The same month that Wil­lie was pres­sured into jump­ing, bombs had been det­o­nated all over Mont­gomery. On 10 Jan­uary four black churches were de­stroyed, as were the homes of Rev­erends Ralph Aber­nathy and Robert Gaetz. On 30 Jan­uary seven Klans­men were ar­rested for the crime. Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. would never get such jus­tice.

BREAK­THROUGH

Nearly 27 years later, in 1976, the then State At­tor­ney Gen­eral Bill Bax­ley re­opened the case. Bax­ley was al­ready an en­emy of the Ku Klux Klan, hav­ing in­censed them with his de­ci­sion to re­open the 16th Street Bap­tist Church bomb­ing case, an act of white su­prem­a­cist ter­ror­ism that, on Sun­day 15 Septem­ber 1963, had re­sulted in se­vere in­juries to 22 peo­ple, as well as the death of four girls; Ad­die Mae Collins, 14, Cyn­thia Wes­ley, 14, Ca­role Robert­son, 14, and Denise Mc­Nair, 11.

Fol­low­ing this, the Klan threat­ened

Bax­ley by let­ter, call­ing him an “hon­orary nig­ger”. Bax­ley’s re­sponse was to take out his of­fi­cial headed pa­per and write a let­ter back. It read, “My re­sponse to your let­ter of Fe­bru­ary 19, 1976, is – kiss my ass.”

Bax­ley tracked down the four men and had them ar­rested. Ray­mond Britt Jr. con­fessed to the events of the evening, via af­fi­davit, in ex­change for im­mu­nity, dated 20 Fe­bru­ary 1976.

Yet Alabama Judge Frank Em­bry would not pros­e­cute, dis­miss­ing the charges due to no cause of Wil­lie’s death ever be­ing es­tab­lished. He quashed the in­dict­ment two times. “Merely forc­ing a per­son to jump from a bridge” he said, “does not nat­u­rally and prob­a­bly lead to the death of such per­son”. It should be noted that the dis­tance Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. was forced to jump to his death

“Fol­low­ing this, the Klan threat­ened Bax­ley by let­ter... Bax­ley’s re­ply read, ‘ My re­sponse to your let­ter of Fe­bru­ary 19, 1976, is – kiss my ass’ ”

that Jan­uary night was be­lieved to be around 38 me­tres.

Bill Bax­ley geared up for an­other bat­tle, un­til FBI agents told the at­tor­ney gen­eral to leave Henry Alexan­der alone. He was, they said, the best in­for­mant they had in the Klan.

Af­ter­math

Two days after Thanks­giv­ing 1992, Henry Alexan­der told his wife Diane that he had things “both­er­ing” him. She asked what they were. “Well, Wil­lie Ed­wards…” he said. “I’m the one that told them.”

Her hus­band had a his­tory when it came to com­mit­ting acts of racially charged ha­tred. As a young man, he had once fired a .38- cal­i­bre pis­tol into the side of a bus, pierc­ing the skin of a preg­nant black woman’s legs. He ad­mit­ted to his shocked wife that he’d made up the story that Wil­lie had whis­tled at a white woman. He also con­fessed to his stunned spouse that he and the other klans­men had given Wil­lie a choice to run or jump. “I didn’t think he would jump,” he said. “If he’d a run, they would never have shot him.”

Henry Alexan­der then had him­self bap­tised. He spent his last days sit­ting in his front yard and cry­ing. He told his wife that his life had never had “mean­ing”. Then, in De­cem­ber 1992, Henry Alexan­der died of lung can­cer.

Five years later, in 1996, Wil­lie’s daugh­ter Malinda, who was just three years old when her fa­ther died, re­quested that Ellen Brooks, the dis­trict at­tor­ney, re- open the case into her fa­ther’s death. The dis­trict at­tor­ney agreed to do that. Thanks to in­no­va­tions in the field of foren­sics, the new med­i­cal ex­am­iner, Dr. James Lau­rid­son, de­clared that the death of Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. was forced. For the first time, al­most 41 years after the night of 23 Jan­uary 1957, Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr.’ s death was ruled a homi­cide.

The dis­trict at­tor­ney pre­sented the new case be­fore a Mont­gomery County Grand Jury in 1999. They agreed Wil­lie’s death was caused by the Ku Klux Klan. They de­clined to in­dict any per­son of the crime.

Wil­lie Ed­wards Jr. Today he lies in rest in the New Pleas­ant Val­ley Ceme­tery in Le­to­hatchee, Alabama

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