When it comes to Black activism, there are many historical figures whose accomplishments are glossed over. To continue our Black History Month True Crime series, we will examine the activism of Harry And Harriette Moore.
Harry Tyson Moore was born on November 18, 1905, in the small farming community of Houston, Florida. He was the only child of Johnny and Rosa Moore. Johnny, who tended to water tanks and ran a small store, died of health issues in 1914, when Harry was only nine years old.
Rosa tried to make ends meet as a single mother by working various jobs, but eventually sent Harry to live with relatives. In 1916, Harry went to live with his three aunts — two educators and one nurse — in Jacksonville, Florida. Harry thrived here in this predominantly Black community and his aunts encouraged his love of learning.
Harry returned to Suwanee County, Florida in 1919 and attended the high school program at Florida Memorial College. He excelled in school and was even nicknamed "Doc" by classmates for his intelligence and grades. He graduated in 1925 and subsequently accepted a teaching job in Cocoa, Florida.
Harriette Vyda Simms Moore was born on June 19, 1902 to parents David and Annie in West Palm Beach, Florida. She had two sisters and three brothers. Her family eventually moved to Mims, Florida.
Harriette attended high school at the Daytona Normal Industrial Institute in Daytona Beach, Florida, and subsequently enrolled in Bethune-Cookman College nearby. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1924, then began working as an elementary school teacher in various schools across Florida.
The Moores' activism really took off in 1934, when they founded a chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Brevard County, Florida. They advocated for equal pay for Black teachers, fought against barriers preventing Black citizens from voting, and investigated lynchings.
As a result of their activism, Harry and Harriette were fired from their teaching jobs. Harry became a paid NAACP organizer and was eventually appointed executive secretary for the Florida chapter of the NAACP. During his time as secretary, statewide membership grew to a peak of 10,000 members in 63 branches.
While the Moores contributed to many causes, they were especially passionate about Black voting rights. After the 1944 Supreme Court verdict that declared all-white primary elections unconstitutional (Smith v. Allwright), the Moores organized the Progressive Voters League of Florida. They helped register 31 percent of eligible Black voters in Florida, which was over 116,000 people! Their work proved instrumental — by the time of the Moores' deaths, Florida had the highest number of registered Black voters.
The Moores also fought for equal salaries for Black teachers in public schools. In 1937, Harry and NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall filed the first lawsuit in the South calling for equal pay. Although it failed in state court, it helped pave the way for numerous other federal lawsuits, which eventually led to equal salaries for Black teachers in Florida.
Unfortunately, the Moores gained enemies through their activism. In particular, Harry's passionate involvement in overturning the wrongful convictions in the 1949 Groveland case — in which three young Black men, and one Black boy, were accused of raping Norma Padgett, a white woman. They are known as the Groveland Four.
On July 16th, 1949, two of the Black men, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, and the one boy, 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, were arrested and brought to Lake County jail. They were tortured by police while imprisoned. Soon after, an angry mob of white residents in the area stormed the police facility, demanding that the authorities hand over Mr. Shepherd, Mr. Irvin, and Mr. Greenlee. When the mob was unable to secure their targets, they continued on to Groveland’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, and murdered Black residents while also burning their homes. Hundreds fled in terror.
After being beaten into giving false confessions, Mr. Irvin, Mr. Shepherd, and Mr. Greenlee were convicted by an all-white jury. The two adults were sentenced to death, while the young boy was given life in prison.
Harry managed to lead a successful campaign to overturn the mens' convictions — in 1951, the Supreme Court granted the appeal and ordered a new trial for the case. However, the hopefulness was short-lived. When the notorious Sheriff Willis McCall of Lake County drove two of the defendants — Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Irvin — to a pre-trial hearing, he shot them. This killed Mr. Shepherd and critically injured Mr. Irvin, who was denied an ambulance because he was Black. Mr. Irvin survived, and would later be sentenced to death once again (though his conviction was later commuted to life imprisonment).
Harry's involvement with the Groveland Four case, along with the Moores' activism as a whole, put a target on the couple's backs. Just shortly after the Groveland case, the Moores were murdered in their home. On December 25, 1951, a bomb made of dynamite was placed directly underneath Harry and Harriette's bedroom.
After celebrating Christmas and their 25th wedding anniversary, the couple retired to their bedroom, where the bomb exploded. Because they were Black, the Moores' family knew they would not be able to secure an ambulance (which may have saved their lives). Instead, their relatives took the couple to the hospital. The trip was 30 miles, and Harry was pronounced dead when he reached the hospital.
The Moores' death made national headlines, and Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a public statement at the time.
“The Moore bombings set off the most intense Civil Rights uproar in a decade,” wrote Ben Green in Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr. “There had been more violent racial incidents… but the Moore bombing was so personal, so singular – a man and his wife blown up in their home on Christmas Day – that it became a magnifying glass to focus the nation’s revulsion.”
The five investigations produced evidence that four suspects, all of whom were high-ranking Ku Klux Klan members in Florida, were involved in the Moores' deaths: Earl J. Brooklyn, Tillman H. “Curley” Belvin, Joseph Cox, and Edward L. Spivey.
The first investigation was headed by the FBI beginning on the night of the murders in 1951 and concluding in 1955. It mainly focused on members of the Klu Klux Klan, and a witness identified two Klan members, Brooklyn and Belvin, as locals in a shop who had asked for directions to the Moores' home just months before the bombing.
Brooklyn gave the FBI inconsistent accounts of his location on the day of the murders, in comparison to statements from witnesses. The FBI also discovered that a Klansman called Belvin in January of 1952, questioning if Belvin had any more dynamite. Belvin reportedly replied, “No, I used it all on the last job.” The investigation also noted that Belvin wore a size 6 shoe, and size 6-8 shoeprints were found at the Moores' home near the site of the explosion. To make matters even more suspicious, four days before the bombing Belvin paid off the rest of his mortgage. Both men died of natural causes before the investigation was completed, and the case was closed.
The second investigation was conducted by both the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and Brevard County State Attorney’s Office in 1978. It focused heavily on Klan members Spivey and the late Cox, who had committed suicide in 1952. Cox was asked to provide information on Brooklyn and Belvin during the first investigation by the FBI.
During the second investigation by the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, Spivey publicly called the investigation a waste of money. However, while he was dying of cancer, Spivey ended up meeting with the case detective over 10 times. He denied any personal involvement with the Moores' deaths, but implicated Cox for detonating the bomb. He said that Cox came to him after the second FBI interview and stated he had, "done something wrong."
The third investigation was conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 1991 after the governor ordered an inquiry into new information. Although several leads were looked into, no substantial, credible new evidence came out of this investigation. It was subsequently closed.
The fourth investigation was conducted by the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights in 2004 after Attorney General Charlie Crist ordered a reopening of the case. Investigators interviewed over 100 people and completed an excavation at the site of the Moores' home.
The fifth and final investigation of the case was conducted by the FBI's cold case division, with the investigation beginning in 2008 and officially closing in 2011. The purpose of this investigation, motivated by the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, was to investigate violations of criminal Civil Rights statutes that occurred prior to 1970 and resulted in death.
After reviewing the previous investigations, the FBI ended up with a total of 10 potential witnesses. However, eight of those witnesses were deceased and two were unable to be located. With no new leads, the investigation once again concluded that Brooklyn, Belvin, Cox, and Spivey were most likely responsible for the bombing. Since all the suspects had died by this point, the case was closed.