Moore, Harry T. 1905–1951
Harry T. Moore 1905–1951
Civil rights activist
On Christmas night of 1951, Florida civil-rights crusader Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette, were killed by a bomb placed under their house, most likely by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Moore’s name is not enshrined among those invoked when Americans confront their shameful history of racist violence. Students, even in his home state, rarely learn of his existence, and his name does not appear among the 40 listed on the granite Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorating those who lost their lives in the fight for equality. Not until the late 1990s, when a book and a Public Broadcasting Service documentary investigated Moore’s accomplishments and his assassination, did his contributions begin to be recognized.
Harry Tyson Moore was born November 18, 1905, in the panhandle farming community of Houston, Florida. His father was a railyard worker who operated a small store in the family’s house. When Moore’s father died in 1914, his mother sent him to live with a sister in Daytona Beach, and then with other sisters in Jacksonville. This branch of the family saw to it that Moore received a good education. Nearly a straight-A student, he graduated from high school in Live Oak, Florida, and then went on to college. Moore earned a teaching degree at Florida Memorial College at the age of 19, and later went on to earn a second degree at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.
Meanwhile, he had begun teaching in the segregated black school system of Brevard County. At his first post in the town of Cocoa, he met his future wife Harriette, and the two settled in her family’s hometown of Mims, near Titusville. Moore quickly advanced to become a junior high school principal in Titusville, remaining there from 1927 to 1936; after that he served as principal and taught fifth and sixth grades in Mims. Moore would remain an educator until he lost his job in retaliation for his political activities in 1946.
The cheery tourist industry associated with Florida in the public mind has obscured the fact that race relations in the state for much of the 20th century were grim. Between 1900 and 1930 Florida had more lynchings per capita than any of the other Deep South states upon which the attention of reformers was focused, and the basic elements of the long struggle for civil rights were late in coming to the state. The 1923 massacre of much of the black population of Rosewood weighed heavily on black residents’ minds, and when Moore established a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Brevard County in 1934, he was a courageous pioneer.
A quiet man who simply refused to accept the disrespect that white Floridians heaped upon their black neighbors, Moore began with small, personal acts of resistance. He refused to let his two daughters work as maids, and he would drive 45 miles to a black-owned movie theater rather than submit to the segregated
At a Glance…
Born November 18, 1905, in Houston, Florida; died on December 25, 1951; parents’ names Johnny and Rosa Moore; father a railyard worker; family ran a small store. Married Harriette Vyda Simms, 1925; two daughters. Education: Attended school in Jacksonville, Florida; graduated from high school program operated by Florida Memorial College, Live Oak, Florida; graduated from Florida Memorial College with Normal degree, 1925,
Career: Civil rights activist; Monroe Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida, teacher, 1925-27; Titusville Colored School, principal, 1927-36; Mims Colored Elementary School, principal and teacher, 1936-46; founded Brevard County branch of NAACP, 1934; founded statewide NAACP chapter, 1941; extensive voter registration drives that raise African American registration to higher level in Florida than in any other state, mid-1940s; NAACP Florida State Conference, executive director, 1947-51; became involved in investigation of Groveland deaths of prisoners in custody, 1951. PBS documentary, The Legacy of Harry T Moore, broadcast, 2000.
seating arrangements at the local white-owned outlet. Soon Moore began to think in terms of larger efforts. Well aware through personal experience of the disparity between the pay of black and white teachers in Florida schools, he urged the national NAACP to seek redress. The 1937 lawsuit that resulted was conducted by NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; it is recognized as a significant landmark in the battle for pay equity.
Although Moore and his associates lost their case, he began to understand the power of activism when it triggered a flurry of similar lawsuits in other Florida localities; some of these succeeded. Moore became more and more deeply involved in civil rights activities. In 1941 he organized a statewide NAACP chapter and became its executive secretary. He began to try to combat the state’s still numerous lynchings, tirelessly writing letters to state legislative and law enforcement officials, and later acting as a one-man watchdog agency who conducted investigations and interviewed witnesses.
The NAACP won a major victory in Florida in 1944 when its whites-only Democratic primary was ruled unconstitutional, and Moore immediately moved to take advantage of this new opportunity to increase black political power. A gifted organizer, he stepped up the NAACP’s voter registration efforts. Largely as a result of Moore’s activities, black voter registration increased from a miserable 5 percent in 1934 to 31 percent in 1950—a figure that was higher than any other southern state. Moore distributed voter guides that rated candidates on their contributions to African American welfare. Well in advance of the registration drives that figure so prominently in the civil rights movement, Moore had become a powerful political force.
Such activities, of course, antagonized the violent terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan and their entrenched patrons in Florida politics. Threats against Moore increased, and he purchased a gun for self-protection. Things got worse in November of 1951 after two of four black teenagers in the town of Groveland accused of raping a white woman were shot by the notoriously white-supremacist sheriff of Lake County, Willis Mc-Call. McCall claimed that the two had tried to overpower him and escape, but the sole survivor of the incident claimed that they had been shot down in cold blood. Moore urged that McCall be indicted for murder. At this crucial time, Moore began to come into conflict with the officially nonpolitical NAACP over his political activities, increasingly oriented toward Florida’s Democratic party. He lost his post weeks before his violent death.
Moore’s murder was widely publicized and brought international condemnation. Baseball star Jackie Robinson led a memorial service attended by 3,000 mourners in New York on January 5, 1952, and a second memorial organized by the NAACP three months later drew 15,000 people to the Madison Square Garden arena to hear a commemorative poem by the great African-American writer Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote: “And this he says, our Harry Moore/As from the grave he cries/No bomb can kill the dreams I hold/For freedom never dies!”
Yet eventually memories of the murder faded or were repressed. Most observers attribute Moore’s relative lack of renown to his having been ahead of his time. “Harry Moore had the audacity to do this work before anybody paid attention to it,” Moore’s biographer Ben Green told the Tampa Tribune. The dramatic events of the civil rights struggle of the late 1950s and early 1960s took place before television cameras that showed the world the ugly face of southern racism. Moore had the misfortune to die during the infancy of that medium.
The FBI, under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, launched an investigation into Moore’s murder in 1952, and experts differ as to how vigorously the agency pursued the case. Biographer Green, quoted by the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, concluded that although “a lot of people thought they just gave it a wink and a nod, which is what I assumed, [they] really busted their butts.” Green names Orlando Klansman Joseph Cox, probably acting at the behest of forces angered by Moore’s political activities, as the most likely suspect in his killing.
Journalist and Klan infiltrator Stetson Kennedy, however, pointed out in a 1991 St. Petersburg Times essay that the FBI initially suggested that the NAACP might have been responsible for the murders, investigated mourners at the Moores’ funeral, and tried to influence the selection of both the judge and prosecutor for the grand jury that was finally convened. Moreover, Kennedy argued, these revelations could well have represented only the tip of an iceberg—all but 3 percent of the documents produced in a 1985 Freedom of Information Act request had been blacked out. Florida governor Lawton Chiles ordered a reopening of the investigation into Moore’s death in 1991, but no arrests resulted. At this writing, the murder of Harry T. Moore remains unsolved.
Green, Ben, Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr, Free Press, 1999.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 12, 1999, p. K2241.
St. Petersburg Times, December 4, 1991, p. A14; January 15, 2001, p. Dl.
Tampa Tribune, August 22, 1999, p. Commentary-4; November 5, 2000, p. Baylife-1; February 3, 2001, p. Polk-6.
—James M. Manheim
"Moore, Harry T. 1905–1951." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/moore-harry-t-1905-1951
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