Klansmen Brutally Killed Their Father. They Now Say His Legacy Is Larger Than Life

Originally published on June 7, 2021 12:50 am

On Jan. 23, 1957, Willie Edwards Jr. was eating dinner with his family in Montgomery, Ala., when he got a call from his boss at the Winn-Dixie asking if he could cover a shift for another driver.

He left his two young daughters and pregnant wife at home that evening but never made it back.

Years later, a former Klansman said that he and other Ku Klux Klan members pulled Willie out of his truck at gunpoint, terrorized him and brought him to a high bridge over the Alabama River.

They told him to jump or they'd shoot him. He jumped.

His oldest daughter, Malinda Edwards, was just 3 years old at the time. In an interview at StoryCorps in September, she told her sister, Mildred Betts, about the moment she learned what happened to her father. Malinda, now 67, was 12 years old when her mother told her about the night he was killed.

Willie Edwards Jr. died in 1957. He was killed by Klansmen who told him to either jump off a bridge or be shot.
Malinda Edwards and Mildred Betts

"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," Malinda said. "But the next day he didn't come back."

Her mom, Sarah Jean Salter, didn't know where Willie was for months.

"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 said.

"And she told me, 'When you get married, don't you let your husband go out the door without knowing what he has on every day, 'cause you don't know if he's coming back.' "

Mildred told her sister that she couldn't believe that the men were not held accountable for their actions following the crime.

All four men connected to the case are now dead.

"Only thing I accomplished was that his death certificate was changed to murder," Malinda said. "People now know he was slain by people with no heart, no feeling."

Mildred told her sister how proud she is of her persistence.

"You did what you did for our family," she told her.

Malinda said that despite the racial violence committed against her father, his legacy lives on.

"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," she said. "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."

This story was produced in collaboration with the PBS series Frontline as part of Un(re)solved — a major initiative documenting the federal effort to investigate more than 150 cold case murders dating back to the civil rights era.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White and Kerrie Hillman. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOEL KING, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. In 1957, Willie Edwards Jr. was eating dinner with his family in Montgomery, Ala., when he got called into work. He never came home. Years later, a former member of the KKK said that he and some other men pulled Edwards out of his truck at gunpoint, beat him and forced him to jump off a bridge into the Alabama River. His daughter Malinda Edwards was only 3 at the time. She talked to her sister Mildred Betts about their father's brutal death.

MALINDA EDWARDS: Momma did tell me everything by the time I was 12. 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. She's like, where is he? Where is he? She didn't know where he was for months. And 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. And she told me when you get married, don't you let your husband go out the door without knowing what he has on every day because you don't know if he's coming back. Was it hurtful when you read that the men that did this were not prosecuted for their crime?

MILDRED BETTS: I couldn't believe that they would not be accountable for their actions. And right now, they're still not.

EDWARDS: At that moment, I took a vow. I said with every breath that's in me, I am going to make these men's life miserable until somebody helps me. Only thing I accomplished was that his death certificate was changed to murder. People now know he was slain by people with no heart, no feeling.

BETTS: You know, I'm very proud of you, Malinda, 'cause you was persistent and that you did what you did for our family.

EDWARDS: I want to let the Klan know one thing. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "JOHN STOCKTON SLOW DRAG")

KING: That was Malinda Edwards and her sister, Mildred Betts. Their story was produced in collaboration with the PBS series "FRONTLINE" as part of "Un(re)solved," which documents cold case murders during the civil rights era. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.