Race against time 


Harry T. Moore died three years too soon.

Had his 1951 murder occurred after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, his name might have been first among the martyrs of the civil-rights movement. Indeed, the still-unsolved killing of the state's NAACP coordinator in a Christmas-day bombing of his Mims home transformed Moore overnight from "the most hated black man in Florida" into "the most famous black man in America."

Author Ben Green backs up his hyperbolic descriptions with hard evidence. Yet not until the 1954 court order ending the separate-but-equal doctrine did that movement begin in earnest to track its losses, Green writes in his new book, "Before His Time" (Free Press, $25). And as the death toll rose, Moore slipped from view, his story relegated to a footnote and, eventually, little more than a snippet of local history.

But it's a tale Green vividly revives. And in reconstructing Moore's life and death -- the latter through 2,000 pages of unedited FBI files -- he validates those few who still memorialize Moore and his place at the core of a hideous chapter of Central Florida history.

"In some ways I think the best quote in the book is from Clarence Rowe," says Green, recalling his interview with the president of the Central Brevard County NAACP, who joined the lobbying that secured $700,000 from the state last year to build a park and museum on the site of Moore's home. Said Rowe of Moore: "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."

What Moore did, writes Green, was serve as "the singular driving force in the registration of 100,000 new black voters" in the six years leading up to his murder. He then "aggressively brokered the power of that emerging bloc vote" in the face of violence backed by Jim Crow oppression, to the alarm even of African-American preachers and political leaders who urged the measured, resolute Moore "to go along to get along."

His was a singular campaign. But it was aided by the terror of the times.

For 17 years prior, Moore, a Florida native and former teacher, had been a visible and outspoken voice decrying brutal lynchings, segregated schools and unequal pay for black teachers. His circulars were generated by the hand-cranked Ditto machine he kept on his dining-room table; he wore out three cars driving backroads on the way to issue his appeals. Those rides form the first memories of his daughter Evangeline, one of two children that Henry and Harriette Moore had.

His actions added to the tumult. By 1951, Florida was an all-out battleground over race relations. In the months preceding Moore's death, a dozen bombings had rocked the state, giving rise to the phrase "The Florida Terror." The targets were as diverse as Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches in Miami and a new black high school and a white-owned ice cream parlor in Orlando. "With 100,000 hungry black voters on the Democratic party rolls and Moore's Progressive Voters' League threatening to unleash a flood of political change, the Ku Klux Klan [was] using dynamite to hold back the tide," Green writes.

But there was another perceived threat right here in Central Florida. In July 1949, four young black men found themselves accused of abducting and raping a white farm wife from Groveland, in southern Lake County; in an echo of the Rosewood incident in 1923, white mobs responded with four days of rioting, burning down black-owned homes and shooting up black neighborhoods. The case became known as "Florida's Little Scottsboro," thrusting Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall into the national spotlight and into a running war of words with Moore. That war climaxed just six weeks before Moore's death when, while transporting two of the Groveland defendants to a hearing, McCall shot them. He alleged they were trying to escape; the one who survived claimed McCall pulled the pair from his car and took aim.

Thus, it was McCall's name that was repeated among the hundreds who gathered outside Moore's home in the hours after dynamite exploded beneath the bedroom he shared with his wife, and on the day of their 25th wedding anniversary. Harry died at the scene; Harriette died days later from her injuries.

But Green excuses the sheriff from blame, as did previous investigations before McCall's death in 1994. Instead, he surmises, Moore died in a Klan attack motivated by fear of his black voter drives. He discounts earlier theories of lagging law enforcement or a cover-up; though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover later would become a vicious enemy of civil-rights leaders, field agents recall the intense pressure placed on them from Washington, D.C., to find the culprits.

Only in hindsight, Green says, does their closest brush with the truth emerge: A 61-year-old secretary of the Orlando klavern was interviewed when the wide net was cast, then killed himself after a second interview by the FBI. The follow-up was slighted in favor of an investigation that focused on other suspects. "It's clear it was a major mistake," says Green, mindful that his named subject may not have done the deed but likely knew who did and may have helped organize it. "But it looks a lot clearer now."

Green himself was drawn to Moore's story in 1991. Rosewood was then in the news, as was the revived Medgar Evers murder case. That year Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered the investigation into Moore's death reopened. "I thought, why haven't I heard of this guy?" says Green. "I grew up in Florida. How can this have happened and have been as big a deal as it was in 1951 and 40 years later nobody, or very few people, had ever heard of it?"

Again there would be no satisfying resolution. And now the chance of it seems lost forever.

But in researching that past, Green heard remarkable echoes of his present -- in particular, a story shared by his own father, who made the surprising admission that, as a third grader in Perry in 1922, he had seen the whole town race to the spot where a black man was lynched and burned at the hands of a white mob. "I just though, God, you've got to be kidding," he says. "What kind of impression does that make on a 9-year-old kid? What does it tell them about the world? What does it tell them about black people, about their own humanity?"

Racing forward toward today's headlines -- police brutality against ethnic minorities in New York, convictions in the dragging death of a black man by whites in Texas -- he says, "We've still got lot of reminders that the Harry Moore story hasn't gone away."


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