University of Georgia, 2022
Harry and Harriette Moore lived in the small citrus town of Mims, Florida, where they each taught in the segregated public-school system around Brevard County from 1925-46. In 1927 Harry Moore became principal of the Titusville Colored School. In 1933, he began a long game over a decade before the United States Supreme Court declared all-white primaries unconstitutional. In order to graduate, the students had to learn how to read and cast a ballot so that one day, whenever that day might come, they would be prepared to vote. Between 1944 and 1951 as the leader of the Progressive Voters League (PVL), he registered over 100,000 black citizens to vote. In a state with 500,000 people, the eligible Black voting block was now at 31 percent, a substantial presence anywhere and significantly higher than any other Southern state.
Florida history was made in 1945 when over 30,000 African Americans voted for the first time in the Democratic Party primary. The PVL brought sweeping changes to state and local elections, throwing their support to candidates that would work towards social equality. In the November 1950 election for Chairman of the Brevard County Commission, it appeared that twenty-year straight incumbent Andrew Fortenberry had a clear path to victory. About two weeks before the election, Moore supported a little-known, write-in-candidate named Dave Nisbet. The tide turned with him and left the local political boss out in the cold. Brevard County was stunned. Fortenberry was furious.
In the aftermath, we learn of the first-time local officials reportedly threatened Moore. Perhaps the most significant test of Moore’s political came in his challenge of Sheriff Willis V. McCall. McCall, born on his grandfather’s 120-acre homestead outside Umatilla in 1910, the son of a dirt farmer, went on to serve seven four-year terms as sheriff of Lake County, a longer stretch than anyone else in Florida. Over his career, McCall was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over 50 times on civil rights violations, including a 1972 incident when he kicked a black prisoner to death. Gov. Reubin Askew removed McCall from office, but McCall again ran for re-election when acquitted of second-degree murder.
In July 1949, a 17-year-old white farm wife named Norma Padgett from Groveland falsely accused four young black men (Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Charles Greenlee, known as the Groveland Four) of beating her husband and abducting and raping her. Beaten into confessions before being convicted, Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death. Because he was only 16 at the time, Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. Thomas was killed in his sleep by a sheriff’s posse of over 1,000 white men at the time of the alleged crime. These accusations set off a high-profile media circus, which led to four days of rioting, with uncontrollable mobs burning down black-owned homes and stores. Eventually, McCall called in the National Guard called in.
The Executive Director of the Florida NAACP, Harry Moore, organized a tireless campaign against the wrongful convictions that eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sent Thurgood Marshall as the defense counsel. In 1951 the Supreme Court ordered a retrial in a lower court after hearing the appeals for Irvin and Shepherd.
In November of that year, Sheriff McCall’s job was to transport the men from the Florida State Prison in Raiford back to the courthouse in Tavares for the new trail. On a deep, dark backwoods county road in Lake County, McCall pulled over saying he had a flat tire. He claimed that the two men, handcuffed together, managed to get out of the backseat of the car, jump him, and begin to run off. McCall shot them both. Shepherd died; Irvin survived. He later told the FBI that McCall yanked them from the backseat and shot them in cold blood. Pictures from the scene did not show a flat tire, and the dirt around the police car was not disturbed, showing he did not get out to check. Despite this evidence, the coroner’s jury took only half an hour to deem the shooting justified. A subsequent FBI investigation concluded McCall acted in self-defense and again cleared of any misconduct.
McCall became Moore’s obsession, with Moore traveling around the state calling for the Governor of Florida to suspend McCall and indict him for murder. At the time, it was seen as bold for a black man to be outspoken against a sheriff. This did not sit well with members of the central Florida Ku Klux Klan. Highly active in Mims, Lake County, Apopka, and Orlando during this period, it was believed that high-ranking members of law enforcement officers, elected officials, and prominent business owners were members of the Klan. Numerous investigations later revealed that Harry Moore’s name was a frequent topic of discussion at their meetings. An informant also revealed that Sheriff Willis McCall was initiated into the Association of Georgia Klans at the Apopka Klavern. At the time, the Klokann Committee was supposed to run any potential terrorist activities by the appropriate law enforcement figures. Orlando meetings were frequently attended by law enforcement, on duty, in full uniform. Due to McCall’s position and stature in the County, little regarding violent crimes happened without his involvement or knowledge.
It was at an Apopka Klan meeting just three weeks after the Groveland trial that several informants told the FBI that a group of Klansmen left The American Club, and a man named Earl Brooklyn pulled out a sketch that he described as a floor plan to Moore’s house. He claimed to have been there before and wanted others to join him in re-casing the home. Brooklyn was a long-standing member of the Klan, described as being extraordinarily violent. A renegade he was expelled from a Klavern in Georgia for participating in unsanctioned acts of brutal violence. Any incident of terrorism in the Orlando area would have seen Earl Brooklyn involved. On Tuesday, December 25, 1951, at 4 pm, Harry and Harriette Moore, their daughter Annie Rosalea “Peaches” Moore, and Harry’s mother Rosa Moore drove six hundred yards southwest over to Annie Simms home for Christmas dinner. They gathered with extended family and friends (their daughter Evangeline was a government clerk in Washington DC and was on a train set to arrive home on December 27). At 9 pm, they returned to the Moore home, sitting at the kitchen table for a piece of anniversary fruitcake, as it was their 25th wedding anniversary. After the ceremony, they all retired around 10:20 pm. Shortly after, a bomb was detonated from a crawl space underneath the house, directly below the bed of Harry Moore. The explosive was some variety of dynamite. The blast took the couple up to the ceiling and then back down to the splintered floorboards. Having heard the explosion, George and Arnold Simms rushed over and pulled Harry and Harriette from the wreckage. Once in George’s Buick sedan, they drove to Fernald-Laughton Memorial Hospital in Sanford. Driving 30 miles to the northwest was necessary, as Titusville’s local hospital would not treat Black patients. Both fatally injured, Mr. Moore died on the way to the hospital. Harriette Moore died nine days later from injuries incurred during the explosion, living just long enough to attend her husband’s funeral.
The Moores were the 12th bombing victims that year as Florida Klansmen called the boom-stick boys terrorized the state. Newspapers in the north would refer to this violence as The Florida Terror. As word spread, rallies were held in New York’s Madison Square Garden; Langston Hughes wrote a song titled The Ballad of Harry Moore, and baseball’s Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out against the murders. Presidential hopeful Senator John F. Kennedy pressured then-President, Harry Truman, to order a federal investigation. Speeches about the Moore’s and racial equality made it to the floor of the United Nations.
January 26, 1952, FBI Special Agents submitted their initial investigatory report, which included a list of suspects. That list included: Andrew Fortenberry, Klansmen Tillman H. Belvin, Earl J. Brooklyn, the Orlando Klavern, NAACP, and the Communist Party. The FBI began an investigation that relied on informants, many of them still active Klan members (500-600 members at the time). Their investigation narrowed down to four figures: Earl Jackson Brooklyn, Joseph Neville Cox, Tillman Holly, Curly Belvin, and Edward Lee Spivey.
There was the most damning evidence with Brooklyn: many informants were there when he attempted to recruit assistance in the bombing. His sketch of Moore’s home was precise down to minor details, the position of the kitchen, living room, bedrooms, doors, windows, the distance to the nearby railroad tracks, how far it was out to Old Dixie Highway. As the investigation continued, Brooklyn died on Christmas Day 1952, one year after the bombing. He passed on natural causes. Belvin was familiar with the use of dynamite. He was also expelled from the Georgia Klan for overstepping on activities that involved violence. He was at the Apopka Klavern meeting when Brooklyn presented Moore’s floorplans. When the FBI interviewed him, they made special notes of his tiny feet, size six shoes. Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Deputies found size 6-8 footprints in the ground around the explosion. In another interesting coincidence, four days before the bombing, Belvin paid off the balance of his home mortgage. $2,500, half the purchase price of the home.
Cox willingly admitted to the FBI formerly being a Klan member but claimed he ceased active participation as he ran for political offices. At the time of the bombing, Cox was running for the office of Supervisor of Elections for Orange County. He knew Moore would never support his candidacy. Cox was the Secretary of the Orlando Klavern of the Association of Georgia Klans, and he was there the night Brooklyn showed the sketch of Moore’s floorplan. Interviewed by the FBI twice, on the second visit (March 29, 1952), he repeatedly asked if their evidence would stand up in court. The FBI assured him it would. He left the interview and went to the home of Edward Lee Spivey. He confessed to participating in the bombing, said he received $5,000 to do so, and then borrowed a shotgun from Spivey. The following morning, he committed suicide. If there had been a suicide note, the last confession, we would never know. Carl Buchanan, the Police Chief who investigated Cox’s suicide, was an active Klansman. Spivey was the Exalted Cyclops of the Orlando Klaverns, the highest position in the regional hierarchy. It would have been impossible for money to be paid for a Klan operation without his knowledge. Spivey phoned an FBI Special Agent between 6-10 times, each time asking for a meeting where he relied on the same information, essentially dying declarations. His repeated confession was that Joseph Neville Cox did it. That Cox did it for the money. However, during these conversations, the Agents noted that Spivey knew far too many details for someone not on the scene. It was cold and foggy. There was music coming from inside the house. The windows closed; shades were down. Christmas lights seen inside the house. Cox had to crawl two feet under the house to plant the bomb. He is pointing the finger, begins to feel like a confession.
Spivey, dying of terminal Cancer, said they wanted to make everything right with God. Despite all of this, the case was never solved, and no one ever prosecuted. The family, the people of Florida, never got peace. Substantial circumstantial evidence points to (at least) Brooklyn, Belvin, Cox, and Spivey, but most believe these four were a small part of a larger ongoing conspiracy. Working with local officials, the FBI could never get close enough to evidence to bring charges. Cooperators would only go so far out of fear of retribution. Eventually, all indictments would fade, the Moore case officially closed in 1953. Three times the case has been reopened, each with the same results. In 2005, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, later governor, held a press conference in Mims where he stated that he resolved the case. He named the four Klansmen above, all dead, with no new evidence found as the perpetrators.
Harry and Harriette Moore were killed 12 years before more widely known figures such as Medgar Evers, 14 years before Malcolm X, and 17 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. For far too long, their sacrifices were overlooked. However, scholars refer to them as the first martyrs of the contemporary civil rights movement. Moore devoted his entire life to the betterment and progress of Black people in America and had made tremendous strides in Florida. The Klan did not just attempt to take Harry Moore from the people, not just the individual, but tried to take hope for better. Moore was a symbol for what a man’s courage could bring, a demand for freedom in Florida.
Reading through the FBI’s 370-page Homicide Investigation file on the Moore family, I frequently think about the sisters, Peaches and Evangeline. How they carried this weight on their shoulders for years, knowing the danger their father was in for his work, knowing the ultimate price that they paid. How for so many years, the justice system could not give them the peace they deserved. How our school textbooks skip over this devasting moment in American history. I am in awe of their family strength, and though searing sadness stays forever, I wonder if ever the sisters were able to have fond memories of times together.