He was the first civil rights leader to be assassinated, but few know his name

Mildred Europa Taylor January 05, 2022
Harry T. Moore was killed on Christmas Day. Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum ofAfrican American History and Culture

Harry Tyson Moore and his wife Harriette founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Brevard County, Florida. On Christmas Day in 1951, the home of the couple in rural Mims, Florida, was bombed and the two were murdered.

Harry Moore died on his way to the hospital, and Harriette Moore died nine days later. Their deaths led to protests across the U.S. Years after the bombing, the State of Florida investigated the incident and found that three members of the Ku Klux Klan were responsible, but they had died at the time of the investigation.

Harry Moore had earned enemies because of his political activism. During his 17-year career in civil rights, he investigated lynchings and organized for equal pay and rights. A schoolteacher by profession, he was largely behind the creation and then the expansion of the Florida NAACP, which at the time was the only viable civil rights organization in the country, sources say. As he continued to fight against racial injustice, some labeled him as the most hated Black man in Florida.

“Harry Moore was doing the exact work that was later carried on by Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson,” Bill Gary, president of the Northern Brevard County branch of the NAACP in Florida, told Baltimore Sun in 2006. “He was a pioneer of the modern civil rights movement.”

Yet, despite Harry Moore’s sacrifice and being the first civil rights leader to be assassinated, few know his name or his story.

Harry Moore was born in 1905 in the town of Houston, Florida. His father, Johnny, worked for the railroad and had a small shop but he died when Harry Moore was only nine years old. Harry Moore’s mother Rosa raised him for some time before sending him to live with his aunts in Jacksonville. Harry Moore graduated from Florida Memorial College and soon after saw how Black people were being victimized in Florida. He saw how the Ku Klux Klan was intimidating Black voters.

By 1925, Harry Moore had begun teaching at a school for Black students in Cocoa, Florida, and later became principal at the Titusville Colored School. While in Cocoa, he met Harriette Simms who would later become his wife. She also became a teacher after the birth of their first daughter.

While teaching in schools, Harry Moore would bring his own materials and educate students about black history. He would also bring in ballots and teach his students how to vote, Smithsonian Magazine reported. He did this long before Brown vs. the Board of Education and before Rosa Parks’ Montgomery bus protest and lunch counter sit-ins.

By the time of his death, Harry Moore had become known for his political organizing. Having understood the significance of the power of the vote, he had formed the Progressive Voters’ League. Before his death, he had registered more than 100,000 Blacks in his county alone — nearly one-third of eligible Black voters in Florida.

But Harry Moore was a marked man, having fought for the rights of Black people at a time when there was a lot of Klan activity. He traveled around the state on roads where it was dangerous to even use a public restroom or where no restaurant would serve him. He churned out thousands of circulars attacking lynchings, segregation and unequal pay for Black teachers. His mom worried for his safety, but he kept assuring her that what he was doing was for the benefit of his race.

On Christmas night in 1951, Harry Moore and his wife had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and retired for the night when their bedroom exploded at 10:20 p.m., “sending them into the ceiling then back down into a pit of shattered floorboards, bookshelf, sewing machine, bed boards and other furniture,” Baltimore Sun reported.

Their oldest daughter, Annie Rosalea, rushed to the scene from her bedroom. She was joined by neighbors who heard the explosion and the Moores were rushed to the hospital. Harry Moore did not make it, and Harriette died nine days later at the hospital after having gone to see her husband at the funeral home.

“The most poignant epitaph for Harry T. Moore is that he was killed three years too soon. If he had been killed in 1954 instead of 1951 … he would be Medgar Evers. Everyone would know his name,” Florida author Ben Green wrote in his 1999 account, Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr.

In the year of the Moores’ deaths, members of Florida’s various Klan klaverns had been behind some bombings using dynamite. And following the Moores’ incident, which was seen to be “so personal”, rallies were held in New York and other major cities against the murders, setting off the most intense civil rights uproar in a decade, according to author Green. President Harry S. Truman got a lot of protest letters while speeches were made on the floor of the United Nations, as reported by Baltimore Sun.

“For a few weeks, Moore was the most famous Black man in the world,” Green said. “Then, it faded.”

“People in Florida wanted the story to go away. It was hurting tourism.”

Harry Moore and his wife in their last years lost their teaching jobs because of his activism. He was also dismissed from his paid NAACP secretary job weeks before his death after being accused of politicizing his job by registering Black people for the Democratic Party. But after his death, the NAACP held a benefit in New York’s Madison Square Garden in March 1952 to commemorate his civil rights work.

The murder of the Moores remains unsolved but to educate and honor their works, a historical marker has been placed at their homesite. The Moore Cultural Complex in Mims also welcomes visitors to a replica of their home that was rebuilt on the original property. What’s more, some of their personal effects are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 6, 2022


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