Harry T. Moore was a little known civil rights activist that made more changes in the state of Florida and the NAACP than any other man in his time. In 1916 Sydney J. Catz was governor of Florida and was a staunch believer that blacks should not be allowed to go to school. Moore was a school teacher and immediately took up the cause. This would be the beginning of his crusade for black rights, a crusade that would result in his tragic death in 1951.
General Background Information:
In 1933 Harry's cousin got NAACP information in the mail. He was scared and took it to Moore to see what he thought of such a thing. It ended up being just what Moore was looking for. In 1938 Moore wrote to the government saying that he was heading a lawsuit about pay equality for teachers, as well as the unequal education system currently in place in Florida. By that time he was already the secretary of the FL chapter of the NAACP. By 1941 he was president of the FL NAACP and then was made secretary for the NAACP as a whole. He was the first full time paid secretary of a state conference.
In 1944 he was made Executive Secretary of the Progressive Voters League. At that time, blacks were encouraged to vote for the Democratic Party. He had started traveling in 1934 in order to get more blacks to vote. In 1934 5% of eligible blacks were registered, by 1951 over 30% were registered, much more than any other southern state. He had also made sweeping advances for the NAACP during this time,: in 1941 there had been 9 branches in the state of FL and a few hundred members. By 145 there were 53 branches with 10,000 members.
Civil Rights Causes and Effects:
Florida had more lynchings per capita in the first half of the 1900s than any other state. The first event that Harry Moore got involved in was one involving a girl named Cynthia Goff. She had gotten a Christmas card from Willy James Howard. She became upset that a black boy had sent her a card. He then wrote a note to her apologizing when he found out she was upset. She told her dad. Her father and 3 friends picked up the boy and his dad at their house and forced them into a truck. The boy was drowned in the Suwannee River, tied up and pushed in. A jury in Live Oak, Florida never gave a ruling. Moore rallied, got signed statements, organized a NAACP group there and appealed to them for help.
In 1949 two events happened that would lead to significant problems for the black community. First off, Willis McCall was made sheriff of Lake County, Florida. (Moore was from Mims, Florida, in Lake County.) McCall was a segregationist and within 1 year 6 blacks had accused him of brutality, and overall the government would investigate the man 48 times. Secondly, Samuel Shepherd was arrested in an alleged rape along with 2 others. 1 other escaped and was shot to death. As a result, there was rioting in Groveland. Black homes were destroyed, the state had to send in cops to stop it, but the KKK showed up.
The Ku Klux Klan members were mostly from Apopka and Orlando, and the cops never arrested a single member of the mob that destroyed the homes and lives of many people. Moore investigated and the FL NAACP charged McCall with brutality because of the beatings of the black suspects. The Orlando Sentinel ran a front page political cartoon of 4 empty electric chairs with “The Final Justice” written across them. Everyone in the area read it, and it thus tainted any jury pool that would have gotten called for the boys' trial. The trial was essentially a sham and the 2 boys got the death sentence.
The Beginning of the End:
In 1951 the violence had been escalating since 1944 when the Smith v. Allwright
ruling happened. The ruling said that political parties are not private and had to let blacks register to vote with whatever party they wanted. The Progressive Voters League had registered about 100,000 new voters by then, and the NAACP was battling against the Jim Crow Laws. The KKK upped its amount of cross burnings, and there were 12 bombings during the last 6 months of 1951. (The bombings were not only anti-black, they were anti-semitic as well.) For example, a housing complex in Miami, Florida that allowed blacks was bombed, a custard stand that served blacks was blown up, and many other similar situations occurred.
In spring of 1951, there was an appeal to the Shepherd trial in Tavares, Florida. McCall insisted on driving the 2 prisoners there himself, alone, in a car. On the way to the trial, McCall said that the 2 shackled prisoners tried to overpower him and he was forced to shoot them several times in the back. They were heavily manacled, handcuffed together, and shot 4 times a piece. The one boy, named Irvin, lived. Shepherd died. Again Moore accused McCall and other white sheriffs of brutality, but this time even the NAACP told him to back down because it was too dangerous.
Moore didn't listen. He wrote to governor Fuller Warren asking to have McCall suspended. The FBI and Criminal Justice Department investigated and called it self defense. Moore tried to involve Thurgood Marshall in his past causes, and this time Marshall finally agreed to help him. Marshall helped at Irvin's re-trial, which Moore was not even around to see.
The NAACP got mad at Moore for pushing his luck and they didn't like the way he was running the FL branches. Organizing in small towns was against their agenda, they wanted to concentrate on bigger places. A lawyer, Williams, was sent to investigate Moore years before. He blamed Moore for the recent drop in membership. However, it was more likely the fact that the membership fee had doubled in 1945 from $1 to $2 dollars and many people could not afford it. Moore was partisan to Democrats, but the NAACP was a non-partisan group and the head of it, Mr. White, would take money from whoever wanted to give it to them.
In November 1951, a conference was held in Daytona Beach, Florida and Moore was ousted as secretary but left as an unpaid state coordinator for the NAACP. He was no longer state director, either. McCall got off of his brutality charges scott free. Around Christmas time, someone broke into More's house and stole his shotgun. At 10:20 pm Christmas Day (and also Moore and his wife's 25th wedding anniversary), a bomb went off. The injured Moore and his wife were brought to Sanford Hospital, 30 miles away. His 2 children were fine, but Moore soon died and his wife was wheelchair bound.
He was the first NAACP official ever killed. The Soviet Ambassador to the US condemned it and John F. Kennedy (a senator at the time) wanted a full investigation. Eleanor Roosevelt was US Ambassador to the United Nations and said this event would “damage our reputation with the world”. The FBI suspected the KKK from Winter Park, Orlando, and Apopka had planned it. A week later, a black store owner said 2 white men came in asking where Moore lived. Those men were Earl Brooklyn and Tillman Belvin.
The two men had alibis for the time when the bombing happened, but they were definitely associated with the KKK. The KKK would not talk, for the most part. Cox, the secretary for the KKK, was interviewed twice. After the second interview, he died under mysterious circumstances. He had told the FBI that 5,000 dollars were paid for info on Moore. Very few people had that money during that time, it must have been a group effort of some sort. Both Brooklyn and Belvin died within a year of the bombing, so there was no one left to talk.
The FBI indicted 7 KKK members to try to get them to talk, but the Supreme Court said that the FBI had no jurisdiction. A judge in Miami closed the case. A funeral was held for Moore on January 1st, 1952. Harried Moore died the day after the funeral. They were believed to be the first couple to give their live for the civil rights effort. The NAACP, ironically, proclaimed him a hero. The people who killed him had not realized that he wasn't in an important position with the NAACP anymore. The NAACP awarded him the Spin Garden Award, their most prestigious honor and ended up spending thousands of dollars to fight for the same things Moore fought for when he was alive.
Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore - PBS Video