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