Forgotten Martyrs

Years before the 'I have a Dream' speech, there were Harry T. Moore, an NAACP employee who led his own civil rights campaign, and his wife, Harriette.

October 03, 2006|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

The case is closed - if not solved.

In her hands, Evangeline Moore weighs the 370-page "Homicide Investigation." The bound notebook feels heavy and right - unlike earlier and lighter investigations into the Christmas 1951 murders of her parents - an NAACP official named Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette Moore. Although justice was neither swift nor conclusive, Evangeline Moore says she is satisfied. Finally, she believes, the state of Florida took the cold case seriously.

"I feel like a load has been lifted off of my shoulders," says Moore, 76, from her home in New Carrollton. "I feel more at peace with the world."

After three previous investigations, Florida officials ended in August one more review of the murders of the Moores in the Florida citrus town of Mims. Four dead Klansmen were again formally implicated in the murders. The merits and timing of the investigation have become entangled in the state's gubernatorial politics. But Evangeline Moore isn't interested in Florida politics. She's interested, perhaps now more than ever, in having her father's life work recognized and dignified.

"My father started the civil rights movement in this era," Moore says. "And he's still being overlooked."

Before Brown vs. the Board of Education, before Rosa Parks' bus protest and lunch counter sit-ins, Harry Tyson Moore taught black kids in the 1930s and 1940s how to read and fill in a ballot. During his 17-year career in civil rights, Moore investigated lynchings and worked for equal pay and rights. By the time of his death, Moore had become equally well-known for his political organizing. His Progressive Voters' League had registered more than 100,000 blacks in his county alone - nearly one-third of eligible black voters in Florida.

"Harry Moore was doing the exact work that was later carried on by Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson," says Bill Gary, president of the Northern Brevard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Florida, the branch Moore started in 1941. "He was a pioneer of the modern civil rights movement."

Moore was also an unknown pioneer. Who outside Central Florida had ever heard of Harry T. Moore? To Evangeline Moore's knowledge, her father wasn't in any history books. He wasn't memorialized on any civil rights monument.

"It was just another discarded crime. It never caught on in the press," says civil rights historian Taylor Branch, whose trilogy of King biographies does not mention Harry Moore. His death, Branch says, preceded the movement's dividing line in 1954 when racially motivated murders became known as assassinations and not categorized as any number of unsolved, unreported lynchings. Moore's story, in essence, had fallen between the cracks of civil rights history.

"Moore was," Branch says, "ahead of time."

He was also a marked man.

On a foggy Christmas night in 1951, a Klansman (the most recent state's report again implicates Joseph N. Cox, who committed suicide one day after the FBI interviewed him) hid behind an orange tree planted by Moore, who had hoped his small grove would one day become his retirement nest egg. An explosive, presumably dynamite, had been planted under the floor joists under the Moores' bedroom. Someone knew the floor plans of their house. Someone provided the getaway car.

Inside, Moore and his wife were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. At 10:20 p.m., after they had cut the customary Christmas fruitcake and retired for the night, the bedroom exploded, sending them into the ceiling then back down into a pit of shattered floorboards, bookshelf, sewing machine, bed boards and other furniture. Their oldest daughter, Annie Rosalea, came running from her bedroom. Neighbors heard the explosion and rushed to the Moores' home.

In Washington, Evangeline had boarded the Seaboard Air Line Railroad's Silver Meteor and was heading to Mims for the holidays. She had moved to Washington to work as a government clerk and often took the Silver Meteor home. On Dec. 27, her uncle met her at the train station - not her father and mother, as usual, but her uncle, who broke the news. There was a bombing. Her father was dead. Her mother was in the hospital.

"The only way you can convince me my dad is dead is to take me to him," Evangeline told her uncle, who instead took her home. Once inside, she saw "all the furniture that I knew so well" in a pit that had been her parents' bedroom. She then went to see her mother, who would resist doctors' orders and go to see her husband at the funeral home.

"She put her hands on the bottom of the casket and just said `Harry,'" her daughter says. "That's all she could say." Her mother died nine days after the bombing and was buried in the red dress she had worn on her wedding anniversary.

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