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When The Klan Forced 24-Year-Old Willie Edwards Jr. To Jump To His Death From Bridge

Willie Edwards. Image via Zinn Education Project

 

Willie Edwards Jr., a 24-year-old Black husband and father of two, had only been a truck driver with the supermarket chain Winn-Dixie for three months when he was called to cover another driver’s shift. Edwards was eating dinner with his family in Montgomery, Ala., when his boss at Winn-Dixie called him to ask if he could cover the shift for the driver.

He agreed. Little did he know that the driver he was replacing was wanted by the Ku Klux Klan for reportedly smiling at a White woman. Three months after Edwards left his two daughters and a pregnant wife at home to cover for his colleague driver, his body was found by fishermen in the Alabama River, 10 miles outside Montgomery.

The medical examiner was not able to determine the cause of Edwards’ death. The police also failed to identify any suspects. It would take Edwards’ family 19 years to find out what happened to him and the culprits.

On December 31, 1975, a man being questioned about a different crime said he had witnessed three Klansmen forcing Edwards to jump to his death from Montgomery’s Tyler-Goodwyn bridge, according to a DOJ memo cited by PBS. Officials in Alabama subsequently reopened the investigation and identified four Klansmen as suspects: Sonny Livingston, Henry Alexander, Jimmy York and Raymond Britt. The men had weeks earlier before the murder been accused of bombing Black churches in Montgomery.

Alexander, York and Livingston were indicted by a grand jury in March 1976 for murder. Britt testified against the others in exchange for immunity. However, the judge dismissed the case for the reason that Edwards’ death certificate did not state a cause. “Merely forcing a person to jump from a bridge” might not lead to death, the judge wrote, as reported by PBS. Britt also failed a polygraph lie-detector test and went on to recant part of his original statement. The case went back to dormancy, PBS said.

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But while on his death bed in 1993, Alexander confessed the crime to his wife, who later contacted Edwards’ family about what she had been told. So in 1997, Edwards’ family pressurized Montgomery’s medical examiner to exhume and re-examine Edwards’ body. The examiner found that the cause of his death was “drowning” and the manner of his death was “homicide”, according to PBS.

The case was brought before a grand jury again. The grand jury recognized that Edwards was murdered by “members or associates of the Ku Klux Klan”. However, it did not indict the two surviving suspects, Britt and Livingston, stating there was “insufficient evidence” to prosecute them because of some problems with the 1970s investigation.

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reopened an investigation into Edwards’ death but failed to advance the case. Livingston was then the only surviving suspect as Britt had died in 2004.

In 2013, the Department of Justice closed the case, stating that “the statute of limitations had run out for any federal charges and that Alabama officials had declined to authorize a third attempt to prosecute Livingston, whom grand juries had decided against charging in the 1970s and 1990s,” PBS wrote.

Livingston died in 2016. Edwards’ oldest daughter, Malinda Edwards, was shocked that none of the four men was held responsible for the murder. Now in her late 60s, she was 12 when her mother Sarah Jean Salter narrated the painful story to her.

“That night she sat in the room and watched him dress. She says she watched every stitch of clothing that he put on. And he kissed her goodbye. But the next day he didn’t come back,” Malinda told NPR.

“Then, she said, ‘We found him washed up in the river.’ And she had to identify the body. The jeans he put on, she had sewn them up herself and she remembered the thread. She remembered the color of his underwear and his shirt and his T-shirt,” Malinda noted.

Even though justice was never found, Malinda said that her father’s legacy is larger than life.

“I want to let the klan know one thing and that is: You may have thought you snuffed out a life, removed it from this Earth, but you didn’t. You made this man bigger than life. Now, he is taught in universities that he couldn’t even attend. This man is on monuments. You didn’t destroy Willie Edwards Jr. You destroyed our hopes and our dreams and our love, but you didn’t remove the man,” she said.

Malinda was able to get her father’s death certificate changed to murder to let the whole world know he was murdered “by people with no heart, no feeling”, she said.

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Written by PH

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