BEFORE HIS TIME:
THE UNTOLD STORY OF HARRY T. MOORE, AMERICA'S FIRST CIVIL RIGHTS MARTYR
by Ben Green
Free Press, 1999
Moore didn't receive recognition like King or Evers
By Michael Browning, Palm Beach Post Staff WriterOn Christmas night, 1951, in a lonely orange grove near Mims, there was an explosion beneath the little wooden house where civil rights activist Harry T. Moore was sleeping with his wife and family.
Monday, August 16, 1999
The blast was so powerful it flung the house off its foundations. Moore and his wife, Harriette, died instantly of concussion and internal injuries after being flung up against the ceiling so violently a hole the size of an egg was knocked through the pine boards. His mother and daughter, Peaches, survived. His second daughter, Evangeline, was away from home that night.
Moore's murder caused a national and international outcry. Protests were registered at the United Nations. The FBI was called in to investigate. The state of Florida, where 11 other race-related bombings had occurred earlier that year, found itself the focus of outrage and opprobrium for its treatment of blacks.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a huge rally in New York City, at which poet Langston Hughes read verses he had composed to honor Moore.
Yet the memory of Moore's remarkable life and violent death gradually faded over the near half-century since his murder. In a state filled with newcomers, few know who Moore was, what he achieved, how he died. His name does not appear on the monumental civil rights fountain in Montgomery, Ala., where Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and other martyrs are honored. Scarcely any civil rights histories mention him.
All that is changing now because of a new book by Tallahassee scholar Ben Green and a new PBS documentary on Moore's life to be broadcast in February, narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. A monument to Moore has been set up in Mims, and two government buildings in Brevard County have been named for him.
"My interest in him began in 1991, when the case was reopened. I'd never heard of him," confessed Green, whose Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America's First Civil Rights Martyr, was published this year by Free Press.
"My immediate reaction was: `I'm from Florida. Why haven't I heard of this guy? Maybe it's because I'm a white man,' or so I thought at first. But later on, I discovered thousands of black Floridians had never heard of him either."
By combing through the Florida archives, the papers of former Gov. Millard Caldwell, the Truman presidential library in Independence, Mo., and -- a huge stroke of good luck -- the complete, unexpurgated FBI file of the case, a copy of which happened to be in the possession of the Orange County state attorney's office, Green gradually reassembled the extraordinary back-story of Moore's career and its horrific end. It's an astonishing tale, one that does not reflect great credit on the state of Florida in the first half of this century.
Green scrolls back to a landscape where trees are hung with the "strange fruit" of lynchings, where the Ku Klux Klan holds festive daylight rallies and barbecues in Orange County, where black defendants are railroaded to Raiford for alleged rape and shot by the sheriff beside a lonely highway at night, while en route from the prison for a new trial.
Nothing could stop him
In some ways, the most remarkable aspect of Moore's life is not that he was murdered, but that he lived as long as he did.
A former schoolteacher, a quiet, an earnest, persevering man who was not a spellbinding orator, but who wore out automobile tires and shoe leather traveling the state on behalf of the NAACP, Moore was tireless in pursuit of equal justice for blacks.
"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 murky 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, under mysterious circumstances, 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. The NAACP wanted to raise dues. Moore warned blacks could not afford higher dues and would simply abandon the organization. The NAACP went ahead anyway, and Moore was proved right. His reward was to be stripped of his position as state secretary and taken off the official mailing list of the organization.
Whipsawed by friends and enemies alike, Moore kept on working quietly, organizing and traveling, writing letters, protesting.
Then, suddenly, he was murdered in a clap of thunder when a dynamite bomb beneath his house exploded in the night on Dec. 25, 1951.
Despite an exhaustive FBI investigation that lasted months, no one was ever arrested for the murders. But Green has painstakingly examined the evidence and has found the probable killer and the probable motive.
The man who arranged Moore's murder was most probably 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, arranged to purchase dynamite (which in those days was sold 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. An associate revealed Cox's role in the murder years later, on his deathbed.
"It's my theory that something in the FBI interview scared him. He was running for elections supervisor. He had no other motive to kill himself."
Why was Moore murdered?
"He was registering black voters and organizing black citrus workers. That's what got him killed, in my opinion," 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."
One of the biggest surprises in researching Moore's assassination was the thoroughness of the FBI investigation. Agents even built mock wooden replicas of Moore's house on Cape Canaveral and blew them up, to see what kind of explosive was used. They interviewed everybody who'd seen or talked to Moore during the last five months of his life. They wiretapped scores of people. It was sleuthing at its most relentless.
"I can't believe J. Edgar Hoover tried to solve the case out of any commitment to racial justice," Green said. "What he wanted to do was stop the flood of bad publicity. The Moore case was the 12th bombing in Florida that year. He was taking a beating. It was a huge scandal. It was mentioned in the United Nations, in the White House, in the Florida governor's mansion. Murdering a guy in his home on Christmas Day was not good publicity."
In May 1998, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles approved $700,000 to build a memorial park and museum on the site of Moore's exploded house. A street in Mims is named after him, as is a multicultural center at Brevard Community College.
Yet it was not always so. Green's book has pulled back the cheery wallpaper of nearly 50 years, to reveal a deep, ugly crack that was almost forgotten.
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