Early civil rights martyr finally receives attention for his lonely 17-year struggle

FBI file on 1951 bombing that killed Harry T. Moore will be given to NAACP

May 13, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- On Christmas night 1951, a terrorist bomb exploded under the floorboards in Harry T. Moore's home in Mims, Fla. Within hours, the soft-spoken NAACP state coordinator was dead, cutting short his 17-year battle for racial justice.

The device had been placed below Moore's bedroom, where he and his wife, Harriette, had retired after celebrating the holiday and their 25th wedding anniversary.

The blast left an 18-by-24-inch hole in the ground and turned much of the wood-frame house into kindling. Mrs. Moore died of her injuries several weeks later.

At the time of the Moores' deaths, Martin Luther King Jr. was still in graduate school. Malcolm X was serving a 10-year prison sentence for robbery, and Medgar Evers was on his honeymoon.

Yet despite Harry Moore's violent death and his career as a fearless voice for equality, his name and contributions are seldom mentioned alongside those three civil rights martyrs.

"Not to take anything away from Medgar, Malcolm or Martin, but this guy ought to be remembered too," said author Ben Green. "If Harry Moore had been killed in 1954 after Brown vs. Board of Education [the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark school desegregation ruling], he would be in every history book and everybody would know his name. But he got killed before there was a movement, and he was just forgotten."

Nearly 48 years later, the Moore murders remain unsolved, but Harry Moore's unsung legacy is finally getting recognition.

The 2,000-page FBI investigative file on Moore's murder will be turned over tomorrow to the NAACP at its national board of directors meeting in Miami.

In his new book, "Before His Time," Green used the files to help chronicle Moore's heroic life and the murder investigation. Despite a hostile and uncooperative environment, Green said, bureau agents narrowed their suspects to five Ku Klux Klan members, one of whom committed suicide a day after being questioned.

"A lot of people thought they just gave it a wink and a nod, which is what I assumed, but they really busted their butts," Green said of the federal agents, who were stymied by the silence of KKK members.

Meanwhile, in Moore's hometown, a local committee has received $700,000 from the state to erect a replica of the house and a museum on the orange grove where his home once stood. Researchers at the University of Florida will receive state money to produce a television documentary on Moore. In 1996, the new Brevard County courthouse was dedicated as the Harry and Harriette Moore Justice Center.

The attention has been heartening for Moore's daughter, Evangeline.

"It has always concerned me that historians have decided within themselves that the civil rights movement didn't start until 1954, because Daddy was actually the first martyr for the civil rights movement," the New Carrollton woman said. "He was doing single-handedly what everyone else had groups of people doing."

At a time when black churches were reluctant to let him hold meetings for fear of being bombed and NAACP membership could cost one's job, Moore drove alone throughout the state holding secret meetings to organize protests, investigations and legal battles over lynchings, school segregation and disparate pay for black teachers.

"I never met him personally," said Clarence Rowe, chairman of the Brevard County NAACP in Florida, "but when I read about him, I used to say, `This man was crazy. He was off his rocker.' That was like signing his own death warrant."

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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