Reopened probe may close chapter on racial slaying
FSU historian Ben Green revived interest in the case after publishing a painstaking book on Harry T. Moore in 1999.
By Michael Browning
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005
The dynamite explosion was so violent it lifted the little wooden house in Mims off its foundations. Inside, two victims were flung up against the pine board ceiling so hard that an egg-sized hole was punched through the wood.
It was Christmas night, Dec. 25, 1951. Killed instantly was Harry T. Moore, a tireless organizer for the NAACP who had been attempting to register black citrus industry workers to vote. His wife, Harriette, would die in the hospital nine days later.
Their murders were perhaps the first, and certainly among the worst, of the nascent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Moore's murder case, which the FBI investigated exhaustively at the time but never solved, has been reopened by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist.
"What hope do I have of solving it after all these years? I have high hopes, and I don't believe they are misplaced," Crist said. "Obviously, after so long a period of time, many people with knowledge of the case may be deceased, but that doesn't mean you don't try. I want to get some closure for this terrorist act.
"We are exhausting every possible avenue. Last week, I wrote to the U.S. attorney general's office asking for their help. We have also taken out ads in . . . the circulation area of the original crime. A couple of people have come forward."
Evangeline Moore was Harry Moore's daughter. She missed the train that would have taken her to Florida, most likely to be murdered. Today, she lives in New Carrollton, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
She remembers how, when she arrived late at the station in Titusville the day after Christmas, 1951, she saw a crowd of relatives, her uncle and aunt, cousins, practically everyone in the family, except for her mother and father.
"Get in the car," her uncle, who had been a military policeman, directed her. "Something has happened."
As they drove home, the uncle delivered the news.
"He told me: 'Your father's dead. Your mother's in the hospital,' " Evangeline Moore said.
Harry Moore's daughter remembers a bruise on his crushed forehead that could not be erased, even by the undertaker who prepared his remains for burial.
She kissed her father's forehead as he lay in his coffin.
"I don't know if you have ever kissed a dead person," she said, "but their skin feels cold as ice. But I had to see him. I couldn't believe he was dead until I saw him."
Shame for Florida
Moore's explosive death in 1951 caused a national and international outcry.
The April 1952 issue of Ebony magazine published photographs of the funeral, at which sheriff's deputies searched mourners.
Protests were registered at the United Nations.
The FBI was called in to investigate and took the case so seriously that it built a replica of the Moore house out on pre-space shot Cape Canaveral and blew it up with dynamite, to try to figure out the placement of the explosives that night.
The FBI interviewed everybody who'd seen or talked to Moore during the last five months of his life. Scores of people were wiretapped. It was very aggressive sleuthing, but no one was ever indicted or brought to trial.
The state of Florida, where 11 other race-related bombings had occurred that year, found itself held up to worldwide opprobrium for its treatment of blacks. The NAACP held a huge rally in New York City at which poet Langston Hughes read verses he had composed to honor Moore:
"Florida means land of flowers
It was on a Christmas night
In the state named for the flowers
Men came bearing dynamite
It could not be in Jesus' name
Beneath the bedroom floor
On Christmas night the killers
Hid the bomb for Harry Moore ..."
Years passed. The circumstances of Moore's spectacular death were virtually forgotten, outside the circle of his family and the small black community in Mims, until FSU historian Ben Green published a painstaking book on his case in 1999, titled Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America's First Civil Rights Martyr. PBS has since done a documentary on Moore, narrated by the late Ossie Davis. The second annual Harry T. Moore commemorative festival will take place Feb. 24-26 in Mims.
State gains authority in case
The formal reopening of the old murder case marks a major shift in the machinery of the law, said Allison Bethel, head of the Florida attorney general's civil rights division. Other notorious civil rights murders from the 1960s have reached a degree of final closure in recent years: The 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls; the assassination of Medgar Evers that same year in Jackson, Miss.; the slaughter of civil rights volunteers James Earl Chaney, Adam Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964, also in Mississippi; and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, again in Mississippi.
Now Florida has been granted sweeping authority to pursue civil rights cases it wouldn't have touched 40 years ago. In a curious way, it's a direct result of the the handiwork of Osama bin Laden and the war on terror sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The federal government is busy with homeland security and other things," Bethel said. "The federal statute of limitations on civil rights crimes committed in those years has expired in many cases.
"So the enabling legislation was passed by the state legislature in 2003, giving us the power to investigate civil rights cases with all the resources of the federal government at our disposal. We are the only state in the country that has this authority, to look into civil rights abuses with the kind of authority the federal government once had.
"That gives us the power to explore uniquely local issues. If a black person tries to buy a house, and can't. If a Jewish person tries to get into the country club and can't. Now they can call Citizens Services at (866) 966-7226, and we'll look into it."
The Moore case resurfaced, and was reopened, because of an odd alignment of events. The black community in Mims had been having an annual church commemoration for upwards of 40 years, always calling for the case to be reopened. Late last year, the local north Brevard County chapter of the NAACP, headed by Bill Gary, asked a reporter to cover the event. The Dec. 18 newspaper article ended up on the attorney general's desk, and Gary added his voice, asking that the case be taken up again.
"The basic reason is a number of other early-on civil rights murders and atrocities have been revisited in recent years," Gary explained. "I am from Philadelphia, Miss., that's my hometown. And that's where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered in 1964. And that case has been reopened recently.
"So I sent a letter to the attorney general and apparently he read it, because he called me up and expressed an interest in reopening the case."
A determined man
A former schoolteacher, Harry Moore was not a thrilling orator. He was instead a quiet, earnest, persevering man who never gave up.
FSU historian Green describes Moore's conversion: A young citrus grove worker named Crandall Warren had received a bunch of NAACP literature and thought it too hot to handle. He gave it to Moore, who spread it out on his dinner table.
"This," said Moore, "is just what I've been waiting for."
Moore joined the NAACP and wore down automobile tires and shoe leather traveling the state on behalf of the organization. From Miami to the Panhandle he traveled, setting up tiny branches of the NAACP all over Florida.
"He had great faith in the American dream," Green said. "In the 1930s, he was telling black schoolchildren about democracy and the right to vote, in a state that still had the poll tax and where blacks were effectively prohibited from voting. Nothing could have stopped him."
It was Moore's campaign on behalf of the "Groveland Four," four black youths accused under mysterious circumstances of raping a white woman in Lake County in July 1949, that made him known throughout the state. One was shot to death in Madison County in a manhunt. The other three were tried in Tavares and found guilty. Two were sentenced to death. The third, just 16, was given life in prison. All said confessions had been beaten out of them by sheriff's deputies.
When the two condemned men won a new trial, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall escorted them back to Tavares, down lonely Highway 146. There, in the dark, one was shot dead and the other gravely wounded, allegedly while trying to escape.
While the Groveland case dragged on, Moore found himself unexpectedly betrayed by his own organization, the NAACP, which wanted to raise dues. Moore warned that blacks could not afford higher dues and would simply give up membership. The NAACP went ahead anyway, and Moore was proved right. His reward was to be stripped of his state secretary position and taken off the official mailing list of the organization.
Caught between friends and enemies alike, Moore kept on working quietly, organizing and traveling, writing letters and protesting.
Then, suddenly, he was murdered in a thunderclap of dynamite, that Christmas night in 1951.
Likely Klan murder
"It was their 25th wedding anniversary," remembered Evangeline Moore, now 74. "So they had a celebration that day and renewed their vows and cut the cake and, being romantic, you know, my mother and father retired to bed for the evening. Then my grandmother went to bed. Then my sister Peaches went to bed. She always read a little before going to sleep. Finally she turned the light out.
"It wasn't but a few minutes after that that there was the explosion. She heard it. She told me she ran into the room screaming. She opened the door between ours and our parents' bedrooms.
"She opened the door and she saw a hole. And our parents were in the hole. There was furniture on top of everything, rafters on top of everything."
A friend drove the dead man and his dying wife to a hospital in Sanford. "There were no ambulances in those days for black people," Evangeline Moore recalled. "My father was pronounced dead on arrival. My mother died nine days later.
"If I had been there, my sister would be dead as well. She was sleeping in my room and her room was empty. In the morning her bed, where she would have slept if I had been there, was covered with shattered glass.
"Why was my daddy killed? Because they didn't like what my daddy was doing. They hated it," Evangeline Moore said.
Ben Green has painstakingly examined the evidence and, with the help of the FBI files he pored over, may have found the probable killer and the probable motive.
The man who arranged Moore's murder was most likely Joseph Neville Cox, the secretary of the Orlando chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, who organized a handful of Klan "head-knockers," as they were called. He is believed to have arranged to buy dynamite (in those days, it was sold freely in many hardware stores in Florida) and have it placed beneath Moore's bedroom. Cox committed suicide the day after being closely questioned by the FBI. In 1977, Ed Spivey, a fellow Klansman, claimed on his death bed that Cox engineered the murder.
"It's my theory that something in the FBI interview scared him," Green said. "He was running for elections supervisor. He had no other motive to kill himself."
But why was Moore murdered?
"He was registering black voters and organizing black citrus workers. That's what got him killed," Green said. "At the time of his death, 31 percent of all eligible blacks in Florida were registered to vote. That was 50 percent higher than any other Southern state, and Moore did it.
"I don't know whether it is too late to solve the murders," he went on. "The interesting thing about the Moore case is that it never came to trial. There was never an indictment of anybody, never a suspect, never a defendant. It's not like these other civil rights cases where white juries let the probable culprits go and the federal government had to step in on civil rights charges. This is a murder case that was never tried.
"However I would not be surprised if there are still people out there who remember the case and know something about it. I think there must be some information, still floating around. In my mind, I believe there are people alive who know what really happened. Whether they will talk or not, is another question," Green said.
Harry Moore's daughter Evangeline is optimistic.
"My expectation is that they are going to find something, if they look far enough and high enough. I am sure there is someone out there who knows something about this. It seems to me the attorney general is being really diligent.
"He phoned me," she said of Charlie Crist, who is considered a likely candidate for governor next year. "He said he will leave no stone unturned. I don't think this is a political thing with him, because if he doesn't succeed, there are going to be some repercussions."
Copyright © 2005, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.
Used with Permission.
Originally published online here.