BEFORE HIS TIME:
THE UNTOLD STORY OF HARRY T. MOORE, AMERICA'S FIRST CIVIL RIGHTS MARTYR
by Ben Green
Free Press, 1999
Civil rights leader gets his due
Reviewed by Harry Wessel of The Sentinel Staff
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on August 1, 1999.
Floridian Harry T. Moore deserves to be included in the pantheon of African-Americans who fought for -- and died for -- basic human rights, argues Ben Green in Before His Time.
Green does not conclusively answer the lingering mystery regarding Harry Moore: Who planted the homemade bomb that exploded under his house in rural Mims on Christmas morning 1951, killing Moore and his wife, Harriette?
But Green, a Florida State professor, free-lance writer and journalist, succeeds in bringing the quiet educator to life, along with the decidedly unquiet times he lived in.
And Green leaves little doubt that few Americans can match Harry Moore when it comes to courage.
Moore, studious by nature and only a so-so public speaker, fought groundbreaking civil rights battles in a time and place they could not be won.
As a school principal in the mid-1930s, he crusaded for equal funding for black students and equal pay for black teachers. He organized the Brevard County NAACP, helping to build chapters around the state, eventually becoming the NAACP's Florida coordinator.
For 17 years, Moore put his life on the line, working tirelessly for voting rights and against lynchings -- which were then an all-too-common occurrence in the Sunshine State.
"From 1900 to 1930, Florida had the highest per capita rate of lynching in the South: 4.5 lynchings for every 10,000 blacks," Green writes.
Lynching was still a problem in 1951, when Moore finally paid the ultimate price for his life's work.
The account of Moore's murder is wrenching. Neither he nor his wife of 25 years died instantly after the homemade bomb exploded under their bedroom. He lingered for hours, she for nine days. Harriette might have survived, but she had lost her will to live, Green writes. "There was nothing that anyone, not even her daughters, could do to console her."
Moore, born in 1905, grew up in Live Oak in North Florida. He lived most of his adult life in the tiny Central Florida town of Mims, a few miles north of Titusville.
The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in Central Florida, Green makes clear, with members and sympathizers sprinkled heavily through law enforcement, school boards and city and county commissions.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who always denied he ever belonged to the Klan but was undeniably a Klan sympathizer, is a major character in the book.
The larger-than-life McCall, Moore's nemesis, gained national notoriety in November 1951 after he shot to death two handcuffed, black prisoners in his personal custody. It was Moore's subsequent campaign to suspend McCall from his sheriff's post that led many to suspect McCall was behind Moore's assassination a few weeks later.
Green is tough on McCall, although the author doubts McCall had anything to do with the Christmas bombing. It was almost certainly the work of the Ku Klux Klan, although the actual names of the killers may never be known.
Green is also tough on the NAACP, which was plagued with internal bickering. Rival members had maneuvered Moore out of his leadership position shortly before his death. Afterward, the same members deified him.
"The NAACP, which only two weeks earlier had been planning to delete Moore from its mailing list, moved quickly to orchestrate the protests over his death. . . . it appears as if the national office didn't want its shoddy treatment of Moore to erode the enormous benefits of his death."
Assassinated three years before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that launched the modern civil rights movement, Harry T. Moore has been largely forgotten. But he finally gets his due, and then some, in Before His Time.
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