From the archive: NAACP advocacy and a mother’s fight to find her son
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is often associated with judicial challenges and political lobbying.
Much of the scholarship on the NAACP focuses on judicial victories, like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), legislative progress and involvement in high-profile demonstrations, such as the 1961 Freedom Rides.
Less is written about the hundreds of cases – lynching, police brutality, disappeared Black men and women – investigated by the NAACP but never prosecuted. The voices of those victims and their families are at risk of being lost to history.
The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive helps restore these narratives to the chronicles of the NAACP’s legacy, and elevates the human stories behind the organization’s monumental achievements in the advancement of Black rights.
Home to thousands of letters from victims and their friends and relatives, the archive contains case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, chancellor and professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these newly unearthed stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.
Many of the archive’s letters to the NAACP are from poorly educated Black citizens who risked retribution for reaching out, but respected and trusted Walter White, Thurgood Marshall and their colleagues at the NAACP that they took those risks.
Dinah Kirkland was one such correspondent.
They did me so bad there I was afraid they would kill me just because I was trying to find out where my son was.
Kirkland’s son, Edward Williams was killed in 1937 in Ocala, Marion County, Florida. He had been held in Ocala County jail on vague charges of attacking a white woman. Kirkland wrote to Marshall detailing the events leading up to her son’s suspected murder.
Although she was driven from Ocala by those who did not want her investigating the disappearance, Kirkland courageously spoke with locals and an employee at the jail where her son was held. According to reports, Williams was released at around 11 p.m., after no evidence against him was found. He was allegedly uneasy about leaving the jail at such a late hour, perhaps cognizant of the possibility that a car-load of hostile white men would be waiting for him outside. By all accounts, Williams’ fears were confirmed and upon release he was confronted by a group of men. He was never heard from again.
What happened after that or where his body was left remains unknown, as does the identity of the perpetrators, although it was suspected that the Marion County Sheriff had been involved in planning the lynching.
The desperate tone of a fearful mother concerned for the safety of her 18-year-old son is clear in her hand-written letters to the NAACP (NAACP Records Box IC353 Folder 6, Admin subject Files, Lynching) collected by archivists and historians and available in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
“My son was all I had to look to,” wrote Kirkland. “It is white and colored that think it was a bad thing for the boy to be carry away an murder in cold blood. He did not have a chance for his life.”
Despite describing herself as “a poor widow woman,” lacking education or social-status, Kirkland showed great bravery, passing information to the NAACP, writing numerous letters and telegrams. She wrote about her harrowing experience, crying to the sheriff only to be told that she must leave or be put in jail. Indeed, her investigations were met with such backlash that she feared for her life, and she was forced to leave Ocala.
It is white and colored that think it was a bad thing for the boy to be carry away an murder in cold blood. He did not have a chance for his life.
Still, Kirkland did not stop in her correspondence to the NAACP. She shared a photograph of her son, parting with her only image of him, a prized possession, in the hope that this would help NAACP investigators.
Kirkland sent letters throughout the summer of 1937 and, by September, had no answers. “I am still praying that you all will soon find out something about my son,” she wrote in a letter dated September 11, 1937.
Through the fall of 1937, the tone of Kirkland’s letters shifts as she accepts that her son has most likely been killed. She no longer asks to find him, only to learn what has happened to him. Many of her letters concern the return of the photograph she sent to the NAACP, clearly an important memory and the only visual connection to her son she has left.
I am still praying that you all will soon find out something about my son
The last letter from Kirkland in the archive is from November 1937, and although various accounts suggest Williams was killed, there was still no definitive proof, or body, to present to the grief-stricken mother.
The NAACP contacted allies in Marion County and disseminated information about Williams’ disappearance to their local representatives. They urged Kirkland to write to Florida’s governor, Fred P. Cone, in support of the Federal Anti-Lynching Bill, legislation that would take another 85 years to be passed.
Ultimately, the NAACP could not effect the prosecution Williams’ killers. His fate or the location of his body was never uncovered. The residents of Ocala “were going about with sealed lips of fear,” wrote Rev. M. D. Potter, who was on the ground helping the NAACP with their investigations.
Although not a judicial victory for the NAACP, their work in this case was nonetheless vital to Kirkland, an isolated and terrified mother. Her fight for justice, and the story of her son’s killing, is available to us through her letters.
Above: Photo of 18-year-old Edward Williams, sent to the NAACP by his mother, Dinah Kirkland, to help them investigate his disappearance. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
More from the Archive...
This correspondence with Thurgood Marshall, civil-rights attorney, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund and Supreme Court justice, housed in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, reveals Marshall’s integrated approach to advocacy.
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