by Ben Green

Free Press, 1999
Hardcover, $25.00
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Before His Time:

The making of a martyr

The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America's
First Civil Rights Martyr


St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 1999

Harry T. Moore, killed by a terrorist bomb in Florida in 1951, is widely known as the first black American assassinated for his work in the modern-day civil rights movement. What most don't know are the darker secrets surrounding Moore's death: How the NAACP forced Moore from his position only weeks before his murder, and how the antics of bystanders looking to capitalize on the notoriety of the case only complicated the search for Moore's real killers.

Before His Time, the new book by Tallahassee writer Ben Green, chronicles Moore's rise from a principal at an all-black school to an uncompromising black leader in Jim Crow Florida. Moore organized the Brevard County chapter of the NAACP in 1934, and methodically embarked on a legal campaign to equalize salaries between white and black teachers. Moore soon recognized that integration would be achieved through the ballot, not the courts. In 1944, with America at war, and Southern sheriffs using peonage laws to keep blacks working for subsistent wages, Moore organized the Progressive Voters' League -- essentially a political arm of the NAACP, which was barred from entering partisan politics.

Under Moore's untiring leadership, the league registered 100,000 black voters in the Democratic Party -- enough, as Green points out, given the Democrats' stranglehold on public office in Florida, "to affect the outcome of every statewide political race." He crisscrossed the state -- visiting churches, NAACP chapters, labor and social groups, often meeting with only a handful of believers under the cover of darkness -- to raise money and build the league into a formidable political force. At the height of Moore's power, he pushed the Florida Legislature to outlaw the Ku Klux Klan, pass anti-lynching laws and to make cities liable for police brutality.

But no campaign earned him more enemies than Moore's defense of three black men arrested in 1949 for the alleged rape of a white farm bride. Set in the tiny, backwoods community called Groveland, the case pitted Moore against the iron-fisted Lake County sheriff, Willis McCall, a former fruit inspector whose mistreatment of blacks and union organizers had already spawned the first of nearly 50 state and federal investigations.

Drawing from a rich collection of files and investigative notes from the Justice Department, FBI, NAACP, Florida Archives and state and local agencies, Green gives a comprehensive view of how Moore's "agitation" in the Groveland case was likely the cause of his unsolved murder. His narrative reads with the intensity of dramatic fiction. Green also has made a historical contribution by debunking the myth that Hoover's FBI whitewashed the case -- indeed, the bureau's work was stellar, even by today's standards -- and by exposing the hypocrisy of the NAACP's embracing its murdered colleague after it had abandoned Moore for financial reasons. Noting how the NAACP used Moore's murder as a fund-raising tool, Green observes: "Ultimately, Harry Moore proved to be worth more money to the NAACP dead than alive."

Green's story is a reminder that violent racism in Florida is hardly a problem of ancient history. Far from being an aberration, people like McCall remained in office for years because Floridians equated segregation with natural law. Harry Moore may have been a big fish for white supremacists, but he was black and intolerant in 1951 Florida. They all fell the same.

John Hill writes editorials for the Times. His biography of former Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall will be published next year by the University Press of Mississippi.

The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America's First Civil Rights Martyr

By Ben Green

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