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Remembering a forgotten fighter for civil rights: Harry T. Moore

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Seventy years ago, one of the first civil rights leaders of the modern era was killed in a bombing in Florida. Harry T. Moore isn't as well-known as Medgar Evers or Martin Luther King Jr. Moore became an activist earlier than either of those civil rights icons. In the 1930s, Moore began investigating lynchings and registering African Americans to vote. Greg Allen has his story.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Mims is a small town on Florida's Atlantic coast, near Cape Canaveral. When Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette, settled there in the late 1920s, it was home to just a few thousand people. A century later, it's still a small town and home to the Harry T. and Harriette Moore Cultural Complex.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Group 1 - this door.

ALLEN: School groups visit almost daily. There's a museum where visitors hear about Moore's early history. He and his wife were both teachers who lost their jobs because of Moore's activism. Undeterred, he became the NAACP's executive secretary in Florida, traveling the state, fundraising, organizing chapters and registering voters from his home base in Mims.

Bill Gary, a former head of the NAACP in Brevard County, says Moore laid the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

BILL GARY: Moore was fighting for the right to register Black voters. Moore was fighting to get anti-lynching legislation passed. He was fighting to equalize Black and white teachers' salaries.

AISHA HOSEY: Come in. Come in here.

ALLEN: At the cultural complex, there's a replica of the house where Harry and Harriette Moore raised two daughters. The original was destroyed in a bombing on Christmas Day in 1951. Dozens of eighth grade students crowd into the tiny shotgun-style house.

HOSEY: I want you to know that Mr. Moore was a extremely brave man.

ALLEN: Museum guide Aisha Hosey shows visitors the 1940s-style kitchen and the Christmas tree still standing, like it was the night Moore was killed.

HOSEY: He registered voters, and voters are extremely important. He fought against lynching, and lynching was prevalent.

ALLEN: Visitors knew Florida for its warm weather, its beaches and its orange groves. But for decades, the state was also the scene of lynchings and violence against African Americans. Anti-Black violence by whites had destroyed communities in Rosewood and Ocoee in the 1920s. Between 1900 and 1930, Florida had the nation's largest number of lynchings per capita.

That's the Florida where Harry T. Moore grew up and decided things had to change. In the 1940s, along with other NAACP leaders, Moore founded the Progressive Voters League, a group that, over several years, registered more than 100,000 Black voters. Moore knew his work on voting rights was dangerous and could cost him his life.

Ben Greene, author of a book about Moore, "Before His Time," says the Ku Klux Klan was active and visible in Florida, especially at election time.

BEN GREEN: There was just outright intimidation. I mean, there was - in Lake County, you know, there was a klan march on Election Day through the Black neighborhood, just basically saying, don't even think about going to the polls.

ALLEN: By 1951, a series of racist bombings throughout the state drew national press. It was called the Florida Terror.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A tense Negro-white housing dispute, as living units were bombed and a race riot was about to flare...

ALLEN: In Miami, dynamite was used to bomb a housing project that was open to Black families. Bombings linked to the klan also hit central Florida, including at an ice cream shop that served Blacks and whites at the same window.

During this time, Harry T. Moore was actively campaigning to reverse the conviction of three African American men, the surviving members of the Groveland Four. They had been falsely accused of raping a woman and beating her husband. As the retrial for two of them was set to begin, the sheriff in Lake County, Willis McCall, shot both men, claiming they were trying to escape. One survived. In the weeks before his death, Moore was working to have McCall removed as sheriff.

Ben Green.

GREEN: He is calling for McCall to be suspended and tried for murder. And as far as white people knew, he was the guy you had to get. He was the Black man that was stirring things up.

ALLEN: Weeks later, Moore was at home in Mims with his wife and daughter on Christmas night when a bomb went off under his bedroom. He died almost immediately. Harriette died a week later. His daughter survived. The FBI sent a dozen agents to Florida. Their investigation took over a year, but neither the bureau nor a grand jury identified who was responsible, and no one was ever charged for the murders. Green says news about Moore's murder and the investigation quickly disappeared from Florida papers.

GREEN: Florida wanted this story to go away. They wanted to get this story off the front pages. It was hurting tourism - all those bombings in Miami and Orlando.

ALLEN: It was 1951, three years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that sparked a new era in the civil rights movement. Harry Moore's story and accomplishments were largely forgotten in Florida.

In 2005, as he prepared to run for governor, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist reopened the investigation of Moore's murder, relying mostly on the extensive FBI file. He named four klansman, all long dead, as the murderers. Others, though, are skeptical the murders have truly been solved.

GARY: That's a very debatable question.

ALLEN: Bill Gary is now the president of the Moore Cultural Center. He says circumstantial evidence is strong that the four klan members were involved. But if so, he says, it's likely they were part of a larger conspiracy.

GARY: And that's a question that, I don't know, may never be answered, as to who initiated the plot to kill him.

ALLEN: Seventy years after the Moores' deaths, Gary is encouraged that Florida is beginning to address injustices that are part of its racist past. Last year, Florida formally exonerated the Groveland Four. Brevard County School Board acknowledged the unjust firings of Harry and Harriette Moore and reinstated them as teachers. It also adopted a curriculum for elementary and high school students that includes field trips and classes on the Moores and their accomplishments.

At the same time, Gary says some still want to censor history. He's concerned about a bill promoted by Florida's governor that would ban teachers from discussing subjects that would make white students feel guilt or discomfort on account of their race. He's blunt in his assessment.

GARY: Legislation of this sort is the same legislation that was passed during Jim Crow era. It is to suppress and control people. It's to provide your own narrative.

ALLEN: If it becomes law, Gary doesn't think the bill will affect the newly adopted curriculum. Students who visit on field trips don't express guilt or discomfort. Their main questions are, who killed Harry T. Moore, and why wasn't anyone brought to justice?

Greg Allen, NPR News, Mims, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.