In a July 28, 1997 letter to Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks, Malinda Edwards made her plea for long delayed justice. Writing on behalf of her family, she requested that Ms. Brooks reopen the 1957 case involving the death of her father, Willie Edwards, Jr. Mr. Edwards’ decomposed body was pulled from the Alabama River more than forty years ago. Today, the case remains unresolved, despite a statement from one of the Klansmen who admitted to being present the night of January 23, 1957 when members of the KKK forced Edwards to Jump from a bridge into the Alabama River.
On February 27, 1976, an article in the Montgomery Advertiser headlined “Suspects Bound In 1957 Slaying.” The article described the horrific circumstances surrounding Edwards’ death. It named Sonny Kyle Livingston Jr., 38, Henry Alexander, 46 and James York 73 as being arrested and charged with the murder of Willie Edwards Jr.
A fourth man, Raymond Britt, Jr. had broken the long silence with his sworn affidavit, dated February 20, 1976. In this statement to Attorney General Bill Baxley, Britt describes how on the night of January 23, 1957, he along with three other men forced Willie Edwards to jump off the Tyler-Goodwin Bridge into the Alabama River.
First, here is some background on Britt and the Klan of that time. Britt said he became a member of the Ku Klux Klan around 1955. During that time he said Walter Boyett headed the Montgomery Klan and it was Boyett who gave the order to kill the truck driver.
In his affidavit, Britt recalls a January 1957 discussion at the Little Kitchen Restaurant among Klan members about a Negro Winn Dixie truck driver that had “said something to offend a white woman.” He said, the restaurant, which was owned by Ray Harrelson, and located then on Jefferson Street, was a “local gathering place for Klan members.”
On the night of January 23, 1957, Britt said that he along with York, Livingston and Alexander went looking for the Negro truck driver. They found the Winn Dixie truck with a black driver parked along Lower Wetumpka Road. The driver had stopped to fill out his logbook.
Britt described what happened next, “When we pulled up in front of the truck, Livingston and I got out of the car. Livingston pulled his gun and walked over to the driver’s side of the truck cab. I walked over to the passenger side. Livingston told the driver to get out of the truck.”
Then according to Britt, they proceeded to the Tyler-Goodwin Bridge with the driver in their car. He said that during the trip, the driver “was shoved around and slapped” while they questioned him. “[He] was sobbing and begging for his life,” Britt said.
Again, Britt in his own words: “The driver continued to plead and sob and say that he had not done anything. When we got to the bridge, we stopped on the middle of the bridge on the side toward Millbrook. Livingston got out of the car and opened the left rear door. York got out and the driver was told to get out by Livingston. Alexander and I stayed in the car. When they got him out of the car they slapped and shoved him around some more.
Livingston, pointing his gun at the driver, told him to “hit the water.” The driver climbed up on the railing on the bridge and jumped off. I remember that he screamed on the way down to the water.”
In 1957 no one was charged with Edwards’ murder. In 1976 the case was reopened but never went to trial. Judge Frank Embry dismissed it because a cause of death was not determined.
Twenty-one years passed before Malinda Edwards made her plea to District Attorney Brooks for justice in her father’s case. Brooks responded by reopening the investigation. In late 1997, State Medical Examiner, Dr. James Lauridson acting on a request from Brooks, exhumed and re-examined Edwards’ remains.
Based on the re-examination of Edwards’ remains using modern technology, Dr. Lauridson ruled the cause of Edwards’ death to be homicide, resulting from having been forced to jump into the Alabama River 41 years ago by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Brooks filed a motion with the court to have Edwards’s death certificate reflect Dr. Lauridson’s findings. Judge Charles Price ordered the Alabama Department of Vital Statistics to change Edwards cause of death from unknown to homicide.
Dr. Lauridson’s ruling and Judge Price’s order cured the legal problem that caused Judge Embry to dismiss the case in 1976. District Attorney Brooks took the case back before the Montgomery County Grand Jury last week. Speaking for this column, Ms. Brooks said that these old cases are difficult to prosecute because witnesses die. In this case she said many of the key witnesses needed for a successful prosecution are dead.
No one can know for sure why, because their proceedings are secret, but the Grand Jury refused to return an indictment. The Edwards’ family is disappointed. Malinda Edwards, who was 5 years old when her father was murdered, remains hopeful that justice delayed doesn’t become justice denied.
Originally Published: March 2, 1999, Montgomery Advertiser