Slaying of Baltimore civil rights protester still unsolved

William Lewis Moore shot and killed in Alabama in 1963

June 01, 2013|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

Everyone begged William Lewis Moore not to go to Mississippi. His pastor told him he would get killed walking around in a sandwich board sign protesting segregation. His family worried about where he would sleep and eat.

Even fellow civil rights activists told the Baltimore postal worker it was a bad idea to walk hundreds of miles through the heart of the South. But Moore insisted on hand-delivering a letter to the governor of Mississippi, urging the staunch segregationist to change.

Moore never made it to Jackson, Miss. He was shot to death on April 23, 1963, after crossing into Alabama. Although police quickly identified a suspect, no one was ever charged. The unsolved crime left Moore's family wondering for 50 years whether someone would come after them, too.

Now the FBI has closed the case, arriving at the same probable suspect: a local merchant who spoke with Moore twice on the day of his death. The agency's investigative report details the last steps of Moore, who had tried to allay his family's fears by reminding them that he had been a Marine and that Marines could handle anything.

President John F. Kennedy marked Moore's death, and he was memorialized on monuments in New York and Montgomery, Ala. He's remembered today for the bravery he inspired, becoming a rallying cry for a movement that saw passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act a year later.

But even after the FBI closed Moore's case in March, his stepdaughter Marilyn Munn says his walk has left their family with a different legacy: fear.

It came from the hate letters, hangups and strange knocks on the door just days after his murder. It followed Munn and her siblings to college, where the FBI monitored them at their mother's request. The unease grew in the absence of a conviction in her father's killing. None will ever come; the FBI's main suspect died in 1998.

Decades passed, America changed, the Ku Klux Klan grew irrelevant and a black man was elected president.

"Things have changed in the country, and I shouldn't be worried anymore," she acknowledges. But the fear never left.

A man's journey

Moore had always been an activist, known for his lone protests in Binghamton, N.Y. People called him an oddball, and he didn't disagree. He didn't hide the mental breakdown he suffered in the early 1950s or his treatment for schizophrenia. It led him to write a book about his time in an institution and to start a newsletter to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.

Moore moved to an apartment in the 400 block of E. 25th St. in Baltimore because he wanted to be closer to civil rights organizations. His wife, Mary, and three stepchildren planned to join him after the school year.

In March 1963, he was arrested in a segregation protest at the Northwood Theatre in the Hillen neighborhood. Before Moore started his walk down South, he had saved up vacation days and traveled to Washington in a failed attempt to deliver another letter, this one urging Kennedy to push harder for integration.

On April 21, Moore, 35, got off a bus in Chattanooga, Tenn., and began what would be a nearly 400-mile walk. He had briefly lived in Mississippi as a child and felt troubled watching the state's governor, Ross Barnett, publicly defend segregation in speeches while Confederate flags waved behind him.

Moore walked barefoot much of the time. His sandwich board sign said: "End Segregation in America — Black or White, Eat at Joe's" on one side and "Equal Rights for All. Mississippi or Bust" on the other. He pushed a cart that carried some belongings and bore another provocative sign: "Wanted: Jesus Christ. Agitator, Carpenter by Trade, Revolutionary, Consorter with Criminals and Prostitutes."

Though many had marched as part of the growing civil rights movement, the spectacle of a white man walking alone — and in such a get-up — drew attention from reporters and passersby.

"1,000 miles to Miss., walking all the way," read a headline in the Baltimore Afro-American.

But as Moore approached Alabama, curiosity gave way to concern. People warned that he was headed into a caldron simmering over segregation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had penned his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" just a week before.

The previous year, Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr., a military police officer stationed in Maryland, was visiting his sick wife in Mississippi when a police officer ordered him off a bus and shot him dead. The Southern Poverty Law Center said Ducksworth, a black man, might have been mistaken for a Freedom Rider.

Moore ran into well-wishers as well as those who disagreed with his message. Some restaurants didn't want to serve him. When asked what he was selling, Moore told one woman "integration," an exchange he recorded in his journal.

'Pushing it'

In tiny Collbran, Ala., along Route 11, he passed a small grocery store on the morning of April 23. Floyd Simpson, who ran the store, and others called him over, according to the FBI.

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