Home > Uncategorized > Harry T. Moore, Unknown Hero – posted 10/6/2018

Harry T. Moore, Unknown Hero – posted 10/6/2018

History is an often surprising and unjust thing. Who gets remembered and for what can seem arbitrary and grossly unfair. What Toni Morrison calls “the master narrative” leaves so much out.

In American history, there are some genuine heroes who remain unknown to the general public. Harry T. Moore is such a person. Moore led the struggle for human rights and against racism long before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. His story is untold.

If asked, I expect most Americans would cite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the first great civil rights leader of our modern era. That really is not true. From 1934 to 1951, Moore, who became the Florida coordinator for the NAACP, led the struggle for civil rights in the Deep South in an even more dangerous time than the 1960’s.

Moore and his wife Harriette gave their lives to the civil rights struggle. They were both murdered on Christmas Eve in 1951 in a crime that was never solved. Their home was bombed when they were asleep inside. The bomb had been placed directly under their bedroom.

The closest hospital that would treat African Americans was 30 miles away. By the time Moore’s neighbors brought him to the hospital, he was dead. His wife died the day after his funeral.

As typically happened back then when black people were murdered, no one was ever charged although there were investigations.

Part of the reason for the disappearance of Moore’s story is the fact that his murder happened in Florida. Moore’s murder flew in the face of the fairy tale narrative told by Florida’s boosters. Florida was the vacation paradise from Silver Springs with its glass bottom boats to Key West.

In fact, Florida was a hotbed of lynchings. Between 1921-1946, Florida had 61 lynchings. It was in Mississippi-Alabama-Georgia territory.

The Florida powers-that-be wanted to bury Moore’s story since it was seen as bad publicity and a disincentive for luring tourists and their money into the state. Disappearing Moore also removed the challenge to white supremacy that he represented.

Moore began his career as a school teacher. He lived in Mims, Florida, not that far from what became Cape Canaveral. He became the principal of the Mims Colored Elementary School. In 1934, he organized the Brevard County chapter of the NAACP.

As an NAACP member, he followed the progress of a lawsuit filed by Thurgood Marshall in Montgomery County, Maryland, Gibbs v. Board of Education, that challenged unequal teacher salaries. Marshall was successful in that lawsuit.

That success prompted Moore to write Marshall about teacher salaries in Florida. The disparity in teacher salaries between black and white teachers was enormous. By 1939-1940, the average salary was $1104 for whites and $574 for blacks. The NAACP filed suit in Florida and it took a dozen lawsuits over the next decade but the teacher salary battle in Florida was eventually won.

Moore launched his own investigations into the lynchings and mob violence that were occurring in Florida. Florida was the scene of the Claude Neal spectacle lynching in 1934 which became the most publicized lynching in American history. A mob barbarically tortured, hung and dismembered Neal before the remains of his body were attached to the rear of a car which then dragged him around the community.

The Neal lynching was not spontaneous. It was advertised and tickets were sold to it. Several thousand people gathered to witness the event. Afterwards, Neal’s fingers and toes were exhibited as souvenirs. Photos were taken and sold for 50 cents a piece.

Moore publicly threw himself into the investigation of multiple lynchings. He wrote the authorities and tried to pressure Florida’s governor to act when local police refused to investigate. He was especially motivated by a case in which a 16 year old young black man was killed after sending a white girl a Christmas card.

In 1945, Moore authored a pamphlet on lynching that criticized police brutality and implicated white sheriffs in murder. He later locked horns with the notorious Southern sheriff Willis McCall in the Groveland boys case.

To say Moore’s anti-lynching work in the rural south was dangerous does not begin to describe the risks he ran. The Klan targeted him and the Brevard County School Board fired him from his teaching job, a job he had held for 20 years. He regularly received death threats and he was often followed by unmarked cars. Although non-violent. Moore carried a .32 caliber pistol for self-defense.

Moore took on an increasingly active role with the NAACP. This history is described in a biography of Moore, Before his Time, written by Ben Green. In his organizing , Moore crisscrossed the back roads of Florida for 17 years often traveling at night to avoid detection. He travelled through small towns where no restaurants would serve him and no motels would house him. Many gas stations would not let him fill up his gas tank, empty his bladder or use the phone.

Moore built the NAACP in Florida from a few hundred members and 9 chapters in 1941 to 53 chapters and 10,000 members by 1945.

In addition to his anti-lynching work, Moore was also the Executive Secretary of the Progressive Voters League, an organization he co-founded in 1944. He launched a statewide voter registration drive at a time Florida made it extremely hard for Black voters to vote. Florida had used a poll tax to prevent African American voting.

The Progressive Voters League registered 100,000 new Black voters. By the time of his death, Moore’s organization had registered 31% of all eligible Black voters in Florida. That was a rate 50% higher than any other Southern state.

Moore became the most visible African American leader in Florida. In 1949, Florida’s governor agreed to meet with him about police brutality, protection of Black voters and job opportunities. This was the first time since Reconstruction that a Florida governor ever met with a Black delegation.

Moore died in 1951, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v Board of Education. Back then, there were no federal civil rights laws or federal marshals protecting him. There was no movement. Moore was on his own.

Clarence Rowe, the president of the Central Brevard County NAACP stated:

“He was walking into the lion’s den. To do what he did back then, when the Klan was operating free rein, was suicide. He knew he was dead from jump street.”

Maybe we need to redefine who qualifies as a genuine American hero. By standing up for civil rights so early and so bravely, by putting himself on the line, and by making the ultimate sacrifice, Harry Moore deserves to be honored – not neglected. His story deserves far greater attention than it has received.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Elly Phillips
    October 7, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you for writing this Jon.

    • October 7, 2018 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Elly, thanks for reading it! I hope everything is good with you.

    • October 30, 2018 at 1:03 am

      Thanks Elly! I hope everything is good with you.

  2. Teresa Wyman, Canterbury, NH
    October 29, 2018 at 6:35 pm

    Several of my neighbors, as I was growing up and again as an adult, were WWII (or just after) Conscientious Objectors – as one might guess, not a common stance. I became quite close to one in particular, a man who lived his Quaker principles more than most, in a quiet, simple, unassuming way. He was born Nov. 17, 1916, and left this earth nearly 15 years ago. How I wish I had thought to write down some of our conversations.

    He told me about some of his placements as a Conscientious Objector… how he was sent to help on a farm in North Dakota in the wintertime, and, in the summer, to inland, central Florida to build more sanitary privies and help build a school for a black community. The COs not only dug the privies, but were also expected to teach better hygiene and infection control practices. When the school was completed, a small party was planned for the community, and the young men.

    There was some sort of a, probably small, lake nearby, and sometime, perhaps a few days before the party, men started riding around the lake on horseback, wearing white robes, and pointed hats, their faces covered. It was in easy view of the black community and whatever accommodations had been made for the COs The party was cancelled.

    He told of another time when he and another CO had gone to the nearest town, and were hanging out outside the little store. He felt something pulling at his pants pocket, but ignored it. Then he felt it again. A black woman asked him to go into the store and buy some certain medicine for her, and gave him the necessary money.

    I look forward to your articles, and thought you might find these little snippets interesting.

    • October 30, 2018 at 1:05 am

      Teresa, thanks so much for reading my articles. I will respond more tomorrow.

    • November 1, 2018 at 12:00 am

      Teresa – Your stories reflect a reality that we are pretty removed from. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to live under the watch of the Klan and to know you could be lynched for almost nothing. I think it is sad how little Americans know of this history which has been whitewashed in my opinion. I think there is an intellectual dishonesty in America that runs deep. If we can just keep saying we are number one maybe we will never have to look at at the history.

      I think the other story about the woman who needed the medicine also shows another hidden reality. Health care for black people did not exist or it was very hard to get, even medicine. Maybe someday we will be able to look at American history honestly but I doubt it.

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