The Martyrdom of Harry T. Moore (1951) by Dr. Marvin Dunn

With the arguable exception of the Seminole warrior Osceola, Harry Tyson Moore was the bravest man who ever walked in Florida. He was born on November 18, 1905, in Houston (pronounced “house-ton”), which is located in north Florida near Live Oak in Suwannee County. He was the only child of Johnny and Rosa Tyson Moore. His father worked for the Seaboard Air Line Railway, taking care of the tanks that were used to provide water to the steam-driven engines of the locomotives. “The family had a small store in front of their house. It was really just a shed where they sold cold drinks, candy bars, peanuts, cigarettes, chewing gum and home-made ice cream that Rosa made in hand-cranked churns.” Skinny and lanky, with a preference for reading rather than sports, Harry didn’t look much like a hero as he grew up. He was, what today would be called, a nerd. Later in life, he would be dubbed “the professor,” a befitting description for a man who was as knowledgeable and well-read as he was.

Moore had a chronic stomach disorder from which he suffered all his life. After his father passed away in 1914, his mother sent him to Daytona to live with one of her sisters. The following year, he moved to Jacksonville to live with three other aunts. During this period, there were not many black high schools in Florida so some black colleges operated high school programs; and in the fall of 1919, Moore came home to attend the high school program at Florida Memorial College. The college has since moved to Miami and is now known as Florida Memorial University. He graduated in 1925 and was hired to teach at a black school in Brevard County on Florida’s east coast near Cape Canaveral. In a short time, he became principal of the black high school in Cocoa. By 1926, Moore met and married Harriette Vyda Simms, who also became a teacher in Brevard County. They had two daughters, Annie Rosalea, who was called “Peaches,” and Juanita Evangeline.

Almost from the start of his work in Brevard County, Moore was an activist. Concerned about the disparity in pay for white and black public school teachers, he began advocating for fair pay. He supported an unsuccessful legal challenge to the discrimination to which black teachers were subjected. People started noticing him, and whites did not like what they saw. Moore had begun organizing NAACP chapters all over the state, traveling mainly to rural areas to organize chapters and to register blacks to vote. At that time, almost all blacks were registered as Republicans because that was the party of Lincoln who had freed them. In this sense, Moore was a visionary, who anticipated the powerful impact blacks could have politically in Florida, particularly if they were allowed to become Democrats.

Then Moore went where no black man in Florida had gone before: He began accusing white sheriffs of participating in, or covering up, lynchings. He became Willis V. McCall’s nemesis. Moore had been a schoolmate of Lula Howard. When her son Willie James was lynched, Moore, having been privy to the quiet investigation the governor ordered, raised the cry, correctly, that the police were covering up the crime. At a time when NAACP membership could result in being fired or worse, and many black churches were reluctant to let him hold meetings for fear of bombing, Moore had driven alone throughout rural areas of the state holding secret meetings to organize protests and wage legal battles over lynchings, school segregation, and disparate pay for black teachers.

Harry T. Moore was the most important civil rights leader in Florida history. He and his wife Harriette were killed by a bomb that was placed under their home in Mims, Florida, on Christmas night in 1951.

Florida State Archives

Moore developed a following outside of Florida. He wrote articles for black media including the widely-read Pittsburgh Courier. He wrote letters to high ranking NAACP leaders in New York, enjoining them to raise the cry about the brutality that blacks in Florida were confronting. He wrote to Florida governors and to the Department of Justice asking for state and federal intervention in anti-black violence in the state. “Governor Caldwell and Attorney General J. Tom Watson generally ignored acts of violence and intimidation against black citizens and against those involved in NAACP activities.”

Moore had helped thousands of blacks to register to vote, following the Allwright decision that outlawed the whites-only Democratic primary. Before the Allwright decision, since Democrats controlled the state, and blacks could only vote in the Republican primaries, their vote was irrelevant. The Allwright decision allowed blacks to become real players in the Democratic Party. Moore’s Progressive Voters League (PVL) was now being courted by white politicians. The PVL was endorsing candidates and the state’s black voters were about to be the deciding factor in the 1952 gubernatorial election.

Prior to his death, Moore had been traveling widely around the state calling for the indictment of Sheriff Willis V. McCall, but it was the organization of local chapters of the NAACP that took most of his time and passion. Moore’s daughter, Evangeline, said that the family was on the road most Sundays in their Model T Ford. Sometimes the family had to carry raincoats and umbrellas because it rained in the car. She said her father did not fear that someone would hurt him, but he knew that it was probable that someone would do so. According to Evangeline Moore who died in 2015, he kept his family close. “When one Moore left the house, four Moores left the house. I think my father knew we wouldn’t have long to be together as a family and he feared someone would get one of us, as a way of getting to him. He kept us very close.” In 1946, the Brevard County School System fired both Moore and his wife for their activism. But between 1944 and 1950 he increased the percent of black voters in the state to 31 percent, higher than that in any other southern state.

The NAACP’s national office was not happy with Moore either. Moore had established a political organization called the Progressive Voters League (PVL), and was using the organization to register blacks as Democrats. By the late 1940s, blacks could join the Democratic Party, and Moore, seeing the impotency of Republicans in Florida, was registering blacks as Democrats, so that their weight could be felt in primary elections. These elections were the only ones that really mattered in the state, dominated as it was by Democrats. This was even more dangerous ground for Moore because now he was shaking the very foundation of white power in Florida. But many blacks, including many of those in the NAACP national office, were Republicans and took exception to Moore’s politicizing the NAACP. Relations between Moore and the national office disintegrated, and Moore was ultimately fired but allowed to maintain a lower title.

On the evening of September 23, 1951, a hundred pounds of dynamite exploded behind an unoccupied sixteen-unit apartment building in Miami, in an all-white area called Carver Village. The bombing caused great agitation in the community, even among some whites. The culprits were never found. “According to Florida historian Stetson Kennedy, the FBI refused to investigate the Carver bombing[s] on the grounds that such incidents were not a violation of federal civil rights laws when citizens were not in their homes or places of worship at the time of the attack. The United States Department of Justice agreed to investigate only the damage done to mailboxes by the blast[s].” Three months later Harry Moore and his wife were killed.

On Christmas night, 1951, Harry T. Moore was killed, and his wife was fatally injured when a bomb exploded under the floorboards of their home in Mims. Harry Moore died that night, and his wife succumbed a few days later. The device had been carefully placed below Moore’s bedroom where he and his wife were sleeping after celebrating the holiday and their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Federal authorities suspected, but could not prove, that the killers used nitroglycerine or TNT, as the blast was far too powerful to have been caused by mere dynamite. Their oldest daughter, Annie Rosalea (“Peaches”), was at home when the bombing occurred. Evangeline, the second daughter, was returning home from Washington, D.C. where she had been visiting her fiancé’s family. She had boarded her train for Florida, completely oblivious to the news that was traveling around the world; her father, Florida’s first civil rights leader of modern times, was dead, and her mother was critically injured by the bomb blast in Mims.

Moore’s body had been thrown violently into the bedroom ceiling. A close friend would later say that it seemed like every bone in his body was broken. His kin, many in town for the holidays, rushed to the scene. The blast had been heard as far as Titusville, some four miles away. Over a thousand people assembled at the Moore home as word spread. Some had walked all the way from Titusville. Moore’s mother, who had been visiting from Jacksonville, cradled her son’s head as a car driven by a relative rushed to the nearest hospital that would accept blacks, over forty miles away in Sanford. “Harry lay slumped against his mother, moaning softly, his head bobbing involuntarily on the twisting road. Just before they arrived in Sanford, he gave out one loud groan and blood spurted from his mouth. Dr. George Starke, a black physician, was called and asked to meet them at the hospital. But, by the time Dr. Starke arrived it was too late.” Harry T. Moore, now martyred, had slipped into history.

The Mims home of Harry T. and Harriette Moore, after the 1951 Christmas night bombing that killed them both. Florida State Archives

After steadily improving, Harriet died several days later. Contrary to her doctor’s advice, she left her hospital bed to attend her husband’s funeral. It was believed by some at the time, that attending the funeral brought on her demise, but her daughter Evangeline disputed this, saying that Dr. Starke did an autopsy and found a hole in her stomach and her intestines all black. Evangeline said her mother would have died anyway. Harriet had been the mainstay of her husband’s life. They had met in Cocoa and married on December 25, 1926. “If it had not been for my mother, dad would never have been able to accomplish what he did.”

Although never proven, it was rumored by some blacks, that the deaths were directly related to Moore’s agitations against Sheriff Willis V. McCall and the Ku Klux Klan for their alleged involvement in the Groveland incident. But Ben Green, the undisputed expert on the Moore case, challenged this assertion. “It was a political assassination,” he said. “The last conversation Harry T. Moore had with his family before they went to bed that night was about the 1952 gubernatorial campaign and how important the black vote would be in its outcome. He was getting too close to changing the political power structure in Florida. It was a hit job. The political powers-that-be at the time, ordered it and got the KKK to carry it out.”

This time, Florida racists had taken a bite too big. After the Claude Neal lynching, the federal government was looking askance at race violence in the South. The publicity surrounding the murder of the Moores brought the Federal Bureau of Investigation into Brevard County, and there was nothing the lynchers feared more than the FBI. The FBI found “there was a widespread network of local officials, police, and militant whites operating throughout central Florida to suppress the rights of blacks.” The KKK was embedded within the local power structure in central Florida. For example, Orange County Sheriff Dave Starr was a Klansman, having been inducted into the Klan at a secret ceremony in a funeral home in Winter Garden following his election in 1948. “Winter Park City Manager Earl Harpole was a Klansman, as were Apopka Police Chief William Dunnaway and Orange County Commissioner John Talton.”

The FBI focused its investigation on five suspects, three of whom died within a year of the bombing of Moore’s home. However, agents were unable to shake the Klan’s wall of silence to confirm a report that one of the suspects was holding a floor plan of Moore’s home at a Klan meeting. Several suspects claimed to have attended a Klan barbecue the day before the killings at which agents believed the murder plot was hatched. The Moore case was reopened in 1991 after a woman claimed that her ex-husband had boasted of being involved, but no arrests were made.v

It was the extravagance of violence in the killing of the Moores plus Harry T. Moore’s standing as a hero to many people outside of Florida that finally brought federal intervention, the FBI, into the state to actively and seriously address racial violence. In the end, it was the only way the anti-black violence in Florida could be restrained. Thurgood Marshall had been a close ally. Marshall visited Moore in Mims and, ironically, given that he would later become a United States Supreme Court justice, slept in the very house where Moore and his wife were killed.

On August 17, 2006, Florida’s attorney general, Charlie Crist, then a Republican candidate for governor, announced that the Moore Case had been solved. Standing beneath a rambling oak tree in front of the site of the bombing, with the couple’s daughter Evangeline at his side, Crist announced that four long-dead Klan members were responsible for the killings. He said that strong circumstantial evidence, unearthed during a twenty-month investigation, pointed to violent factions within the KKK as being responsible for this horrible act. Those implicated were Earl J. Brooklyn, Tillman H. Bevlin, Joseph N. Cox, and Edward L. Spivey. But the Crist announcement was met with skepticism from researchers (including me) and others who insisted that other whites may have been involved in Moore’s murder.

The most vocal and authoritative critic of the Crist announcement came from Ben Green, the expert on the case, who insisted that nothing new had been unearthed and that there were reasons to question the focus on these particular men. “They were just pulling names out of a hat. I cannot find any credible evidence in this report that three of the four—Brooklyn, Belvin and Spivey-were personally involved in the bombing, any more than a half dozen other Klansmen who were suspected by the FBI.” In 2006, the State of Florida’s Crime Stoppers program refused to release the $25,000 reward to anyone connected to the Crist investigation, insisting also that there was no new convincing evidence uncovered to justify making the award.

According to Green, the murder of the Moores had nothing to do with Willis McCall. In Green’s view, Moore was killed because he had become a serious political threat. Moore, a black man, had his hands on the very reins of black political power in Florida. He posed no real threat to the Klan. Moore had his eyes fixed on Tallahassee and Washington D.C., where he knew blacks were about to enter the South’s political stage, wielding real power. Said Green, “In my mind it was the threat that he posed to the white power structure in Florida in 1951. It wasn’t the Groveland case or Willis V. McCall.” Even though there were a number of influential black Republicans who had not appreciated Moore using the trappings of the organization to register blacks as Democrats, in the aftermath of his very violent and public death, the organization saw an opportunity to beat its own breast. Before the ashes of the bombed-out Moore home cooled, the national NAACP flip-flopped, praising Moore and raising him up before the shocked nation as a fallen hero. According to Green, there was a veritable food fight over who was going to claim his legacy. “They had treated him terribly shabbily and made more money off of him dead than alive.”

In 1952, the organization awarded Moore its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, given to the African American whose achievements were judged to be the most outstanding that year. Green believed it was nothing but a huge fundraising event for the organization. “It was yet another example of those who used Moore’s martyrdom to make money.” Even as late as 2008, Evangeline Moore had not forgotten the treatment the family received from the national NAACP, and barely disguised her contempt for the organization. She said the NAACP sent someone to do a hatchet job on her father. She wrote more than a dozen letters in an attempt to get the organization to settle with the family on her father’s salary, but the NAACP never paid Moore’s back salary. “When they had the big ceremony in New York at Madison Square Garden to award him the Spingarn Medal, they didn’t invite me and my sister.”

In Moore’s hometown, a local committee received $700,000 from the State to erect a replica of the house and museum in the orange grove where his home once stood. The Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Justice Center in Brevard County was named for them. Researchers at the University of Florida received state money to produce a television documentary on Moore, Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore, which was distributed to public broadcast stations nationwide. When asked why the original structure was not preserved, Evangeline Moore said that it would have been too traumatic. She had returned to the house only once and saw that she would have been killed had she been at home that night.

Evangeline Moore believed that historians decided that the civil rights movement didn’t start until 1954 when in fact, her father was actually the first martyr for the civil rights movement. “He was doing single-handedly what everyone else had groups of people doing. He was all alone.”Annie Rosalea (Peaches) died in 1972. According to Evangeline, “Peaches” lived in fear after the bombing. She was the one who opened the door to their parents’ bedroom after the explosion. Evangeline was the last Moore left. She said in 2008, “God has protected me and allowed me to rise above what happened. She died in 2015.

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