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It’s been half a century since MLK’s assassination. Let’s look at the story of two lesser-known civil rights activists who also died for equal rights: Harriette and Harry Moore.
The Moores were the first civil rights activists to be assassinated in a long string of murders that included Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and others. They were also the first and only couple to be killed in the fight for civil rights.
December 25, 1951 started as a special day for Harry and Harriette Moore. It was Christmas, and it was also their silver wedding anniversary. They celebrated with friends and family that evening, including their eldest daughter Annie and Harry’s mother Rosa. Juanita Evangeline, their youngest, was scheduled to join them in Mims, Florida, two days later.
At 10:20pm, not long after the couple turned in for the evening, the day’s festivities turned deadly when a bomb exploded in their home. The blast blew off the front door and was heard four miles away — you can see the extent of the damage in the above photo, taken the day of the blast, from the Florida Memory Project. Annie and Rosa suffered non-life-threatening injuries, but Harry died en route to the hospital, and Harriette died nine days later.
“They were the first couple that really took [civil rights violations] by the horn,” says Sonya Mallard, Coordinator of the Harry & Harriette Moore Cultural Complex. “They didn't want to sweep it under the rug.”
The bombing made headlines around the globe. “That was the bomb that was heard around the world,” says Mallard.
Presidential hopeful Senator John F. Kennedy asked President Harry Truman to order a federal investigation. The initial investigation revealed that a bomb had been placed beneath the floor joists directly under the couple’s bed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) questioned a number of Ku Klux Klan members including Joseph N. Cox, who killed himself in 1952 after the bureau questioned him a second time.
In 1953, the Bureau brought perjury charges against seven Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members for lying to its agents, and a federal grand jury returned indictments for perjury. But they were all quashed by January 1954 for lack of federal jurisdiction — at the time, the FBI had no jurisdiction over local killings, and the investigation closed in 1955.
The bombing was the culmination of “The Florida Terror,” a series of attacks carried out by the Ku Klux Klan throughout the state. In the latter half of 1951, KKK members bombed a dozen locations, including an all-black housing complex, Jewish synagogues, and a new high school for Black students.
The bombing was designed to stop the Moores’ work for racial equality: Harriette taught Black Studies curricula at an all-black school, at risk of being fired. In 1934, Harry founded the first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Brevard County, Florida. Three years later the organization partnered with NAACP attorney (and future Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall and the all-black Florida State Teachers Association to file a lawsuit that called for equal pay for Black and white teachers. Although they lost the case, it served as the impetus for a series of federal lawsuits that equalized teacher salaries.
Eventually both Harriette and Henry were fired from their teaching jobs due to their activism, after which Henry joined the Florida NAACP full-time as an organizer. He also formed the Florida Progressive Voters League. The organization registered approximately 100,000 Black voters in the state of Florida from 1944 to 1951. One NAACP colleague even warned Harry that his work jeopardized his safety, but Harry replied, "I'm going to keep doing it, even if it costs me my life."
Harry’s work challenged Florida’s long-standing discriminatory practices, especially as he tackled the state’s lynching cases. The notorious “Groveland Four” rape case, for example, garnered national attention and demonstrated Moore’s impact in the region.
In 1949, four black men from Lake County, Florida: Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, were accused of raping a white woman. Thomas, who escaped arrest, was shot and killed by police after a manhunt; the other three were taken into custody and beaten until two of them reportedly confessed. Meanwhile, angry white residents of Groveland raided the city to attack its black residents. Although the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions and death sentences, Lake County officials decided to try them again.
On their drive to a pre-trial hearing, a Lake County sheriff shot Irvin and Shepherd, who were both handcuffed, claiming that they had attacked him in a plot to escape; Shepherd died from the bullet wounds, and Irvin was seriously injured. Irvin told Moore that the sheriff had dragged them from the car and fired. Moore demanded that the sheriff be suspended and indicted for murder. Instead, Irvin was sentenced to life in prison, and the Moores’ home was bombed six weeks later.
Was the case ever solved? In 1978, twenty-three years after the initial investigation of the bombing closed, a Ku Klux Klansman named Edward L. Spivey contacted state authorities with a “deathbed confession.” Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Spivey said that Cox had played a part in the bombing. Spivey’s detailed confession led authorities to conclude that both he and Cox had participated.
Spivey died in 1980, and the investigation didn’t resume until 1991, when Governor Lawton Chiles ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-investigate the Moore case after a woman claimed that her husband had participated in the murders. That lead yielded little, and the investigation closed again in 1992.
The 1990s also propelled Juanita Evangeline into the public eye, as she worked to maintain her parents’ legacy. In 2004, she celebrated the opening of the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park. The 11.93-acre park sits on the property of their original family home site and features a replica of their home and the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Cultural Center, which documents their lives and important moments in the pre-civil rights era. William Gary — President of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, which oversees the Moore Memorial Park in Mims — worked on the park for years.
“It's a very emotional thing for me. I grew up in the segregated south, in Mississippi, in the hotbed of civil rights history. So, my ability to get a college education, to be an engineer and work for NASA is a direct result of things they were fighting for back then,” Gary told Nexstar Broadcasting.
In the December of the same year Evangeline opened the park in her parents’ honor, the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement re-opened the murder investigation. In 2006, 55 years after the bombing, the extensive investigation concluded that Cox, Spivey and two other Klansmen, Earl J. Brooklyn and Tillman A. Belvin, had participated in the bombing. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said, “We have great confidence that the major culprits have now been identified. In all likelihood, indictments from a grand jury would be sought against these four if they were still living.”
Upon hearing the news, Juanita Evangeline responded, “This announcement means more to me than I can say. I have suffered doubt in human mankind, uneasiness and fear, especially when I visited my home. Thank you to all those who participated.”
Juanita Evangeline passed away in 2015, more than 40 years after her sister Annie’s death, and 64 years after her parents’ deaths.
The Moore family’s legacy, however, continues.
Four artifacts — including Harry’s pocket watch and Harriette’s lockette — reside at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and more than 5,000 people visit the memorial park annually. Every election, voters of every race cast ballots at the park.
“Now, when people come to vote in this area,” says Mallard, “they come right here.”
[Photo c/o The Florida Memory Project, General Print Collections]