More than a decade before SELMA, some of Harry T. Moore’s most important victories were won in the political arena. In the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, this brave man advocated for the rights of people of color and others in pursuit of the freedom and justice accorded the white population in America. Yet, he is virtually an unknown figure in American history. Christmas day 1951, he was assassinated in a bombing of his home by an alleged Ku Klux Klan (KKK) plot for his Civil Rights struggles.
During his formative years as a school teacher in Florida, Moore defied rigid Southern prohibitions and taught Black elementary school children the value of participation in the political process long before most Blacks had the right to vote in America. In the 1940s, he sought the legal assistance of Thurgood Marshall and led the fight for equal salaries for Black teachers in Florida, a precursor to Brown vs. The Board of Education that provided Blacks equal education in America. As Founder and President of the Florida NAACP, he lead voter registration drives, investigated lynchings, bombings and discrimination due mainly to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Moore involved himself in fighting for justice for the victims in the courts in a society where Blacks were captives of Jim Crow laws that “kept them in their place.”
He founded the Progressive Voters League of Florida, and as its Executive Director he registered 116,000 new Black voters in Florida in the mid-1940s and early 50s in the face of KKK killings, bombings and burnings that were all too frequent. He advocated for the removal of laws that prohibited Blacks from participating in Florida primaries as candidates. He resisted poll taxes and the exclusion of Blacks at the ballot box. He fought against many injustices of Blacks and Jews in Florida.
His fate was sealed when he involved himself in advocating for justice of four Black youth accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida. All four were found guilty by an all-white jury. The convictions were overturned on appeal to the US Supreme Court due to the biased climate and unfavorable newspaper publicity during the trial. The news caused an international protest and Harry moved quickly to request the assistance of the FBI and Thurgood Marshall who had worked with him on other cases of injustice. A new trial was set and two of the accused were transported from the jail to a hearing by a sheriff known to be a member of the KKK. Both accused were shot by the sheriff during the transport and one survived to tell the story that the sheriff pulled the handcuffed suspects from the car and shot them three times in cold blood. The Russians at a United Nations meeting even complained of the lack of civil rights for Blacks in American because of the Harry T Moore killing sparked by the Groveland alleged rape incident. Moore called for the indictment of the sheriff for killing the suspect. A few days following Moore’s seeking justice for the suspects, Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriet were bombed in their bedroom on Christmas night, 1951. Harry died instantly and Harriet survived for nine more days.
Years later, many Civil Rights Laws were enacted to provide rights to Blacks and others that Harry T. Moore, the First Martyr of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, fought for in the deepest southern state before he was “killed for his self-effacing bravery.”