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The First Civil Rights Martyrs – Harry & Harriette Moore

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On Christmas Day of 1951, it was the 25th wedding anniversary of Harry and Harriette Moore from Mims, Florida. The couple were pioneer activists and leaders of the early civil rights movement in the United States. Unbeknownst to them, later on that night, they would become the first martyrs of the movement, followed by Harry T. Moore and Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1934, Harry founded the Brevard County, Florida, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. NAACP worked towards achieving equal pay for equal work for teachers of any race and fought to have lunching prosecuted and attempted to register voters of color in the region. When African Americans were being mistreated by law enforcement, Harry demanded investigations, prodding anybody in a position of authority. When a Lake County sheriff shot two African American suspects while they were both shackled, Harry wrote a letter for Gov. Fuller Warren (who himself was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan) and urged an investigation. He wrote: “We need not try to `whitewash’ this case or bury our heads in the sand, like an ostrich. Florida is on trial before the rest of the world.”

Harry saw some success during the nascent civil rights movement. Voters of color doubled in Florida during the last half of the 1940s and lawsuits started to be filed to challenge the policy of paying teachers of color less than their white counterparts. He was credited by historians with helping register 70,000 to 100,000 African American voters in Florida by 1950.

David Colburn, a University of Florida history professor and civil rights authority, described Harry as “”one of those pivotal transitional figures between World War II and the 1960s. He was fighting on the front lines to secure the promise of World War II. Blacks had been inspired by the fight against fascism and Nazism in World War II and thought the nation would recognize its obligation to them.”

Due to their civil rights activity, both Harry and Harriette were fired from the school where they had both worked for two decades. Orange County was a hotbed of racism and violence during the 1940s and early 1950s; the Orange County Ku Klux Klan was gaining popularity and turning more violent by the day. Harry knew that his work would make him a target. “He knew he was committing suicide, and his wife knew he was committing suicide,” wrote Ben Green, author of “Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr.” Harry accepted that he lived – and fought – in an oppressive climate of terror. “Every advancement comes by way of sacrifice,” said Harry to his mother, Rosa.

On that fateful Christmas afternoon, Harry and Harriette had celebrated their anniversary and Christmas with their daughters, Evangeline and Annie Rosalea, and Harry’s mother. They spent the evening eating cake, sharing presents and reminiscing. One present that Harry and Harriette always made sure they got their daughters was a black baby doll, even long after childhood. It was during a time that ethnic toys were exceptionally rare. “They were ahead of their time. I don’t know where my parents even got the dolls,” said Evangeline.1

At around 10:15PM, the couple climbed into bed and switched off the light. Moments later, there was a massive explosion; somebody had planted 3 pounds of dynamite under the bedroom floor of the couple. The force of the dynamite tore open the floor and slammed the mattress to the ceiling before crashing back down. to the ground The bedroom was completely obliterated, the front porch had been shredded and the frame of the house destroyed.

Harry and Harriette’s home in the aftermath of the bomb.

Harry died on the way to Stanford hospital in the back of a relative’s Buick; Stanford hospital was the closest hospital that would treat people of colour and it was over half an hour away. Harriette died nine days later due to massive internal injuries; she lived long enough to see her husband be buried. And just like that, their 17 year battle for racial justice was tragically cut short.

When police arrived at the scene, a sniffer dog picked up a scent which led to nearby Dixie Highway before abruptly stopping. Sheriff H.T. Williams found footprints alongside the scent but since he walked through them, the plaster imprint that was made was useless. An investigation of the home turned up no evidence of a detonator. Therefore, investigators concluded that the killer or killers had used dynamite triggered by a fuse.

The murders sparked international outrage and put Mims on the map in an ugly way. President Harry Truman received numerous letters demanding a thorough investigation and protestors as far away as Europe demanded justice for the couple. The FBI set up a command headquarters in a Mims motel and assigned 20 agents to work on the case. They interviewed locals and checked motels, hotels and trailer camps and checked the local airport to see if anybody had flown in and out on Christmas Day but to no avail.

It wouldn’t be long before the FBI turned their attention to several members of the Orange County Ku Klux Klan. At the time of the murders, Orange County had at least three Klan groups and claimed membership of at least 300. The FBI uncovered that the ranks included elected leaders, business executives and law-enforcement officials.

Officially, the murders remain unsolved but according to FBI documents, there were four main suspects, all of whom were known high ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan: Earl J. Brooklyn, Tillman H. Belvin, Joseph Cox and Edward L. Spivey.

Early on in the investigation, the FBI went to the Mims Confectionery Store where a customer informed that that during the summer, two white men had entered the store, one of whom as wearing a red cap and the other wearing a cowboy hat and boots. One of the men asked where “rich professor Moore lived” while the other said they were looking for the “Professor Moore that doesn’t have to work and just travels around and has money.”

The descriptions of the men matched Brooklyn and Belvin. During interviews with the FBI, Brooklyn and Belvin gave inconsistent and conflicting statements about what they had done on the day of the bombing. One man who spent Christmas Day with Brooklyn said that she had gone home  sick in the afternoon while another man said that Brooklyn was not sick, and had stayed at the Christmas party until 9PM.

Belvin’s son told the FBI that his father had spent Christmas Day at home, bed in sick. However, his other son said that his father had went out hunting on Christmas Day. Belvin’s son-in-law and daughter said that the family had gone horseback riding and then drove around looking at Christmas decorations.

Cox, who had helped organize the Orlando Klan chapter, was interviewed twice by the FBI and appeared nervous and kept questioning the FBI about what they had uncovered. Following the second interview, Cox committed suicide in his back yard with a 20-gauge single-barrel shotgun. The suicide came as a complete shock to his family and he left behind no suicide note.

Spivey wasn’t on the FBI’s radar until 1978 when he called the Brevard Sheriff’s Office to talk about the murders. Two officers went to his home. Spivey was drunk and mostly rambling incoherently. At times during the conversation, he broke down crying. He claimed that he had been a Klansman and that Cox had been paid $5,000 from the Klan for the murders. He claimed that was all he knew but sadly, Cox had been dead for more than a quarter century.2

No arrests were ever made and the three remaining men have since died. Following the investigation, the FBI wrote a memo which read that they were convinced that “some of the KKK members at Apopka and Winter Garden are in all probability responsible for the bombing.”3

Over the forthcoming years, the case was reviewed but sadly, the case had minimal physical evidence and so much time had passed that all of the suspects were dead. A small museum sits on the land here Harry and Harriette’s home once stood. Juanita Barton, the museum’s cultural-center coordinator hopes that one day, investigators will find enough evidence to truly identify the killer, despite the fact it’s far too late for a conviction.  

Footnotes:

  1. The Orlando Sentinel, 14 December, 2003 – “Haunting Memories Cloud Christmas Joy”
  2. The Orlando Sentinel, 11 October, 1991 – “Death Found Suspects Before Justice Could”
  3. The Orlando Sentinel, 22 December, 2004 – “Civil-Rights Martyr Case Reopens”
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Kathrina Walsh

Of course it was the kkk. Such a dark chapter in history.

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