Florida’s Harry T. Moore: His Legacy and Fight For Equality

Harry T Moore
Harry T. Moore circa 1934

Thousands travelled to Washington D.C. last August to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech.”  But before King ever made that speech on August 28th, 1963, Floridian Harry T. Moore was doing groundbreaking work in the state registering African American voters.  Moore also investigated police brutality and lynchings.  Sadly, Moore and his wife Harriette died when someone planted a hate bomb at their home in December of 1951.  No one has ever solved the murder.  In January of 2001, PBS aired a documentary on Harry T. Moore called, “Freedom Never Dies:  The Legacy of Harry T. Moore.”  The program was produced by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts from the University of Florida Documentary Institute (the Institute is no longer at UF because of budget cuts).  Donna Green-Townsend talked with them about the production of this 90-minute documentary and why Moore’s contributions and sacrifice have been largely forgotten until now.  (originally broadcast on WUFT in January, 2001). 

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Bill and Eli PerrasHere’s a link to a song written about Harry T. Moore by Florida singer songwriters, Bill and Eli Perras:   http://www.reverbnation.com/tunepak/song_11835017



Full script of feature:

Moore video jacketEven though many are celebrating the life of the late Martin Luther King Jr. this month, there’s another unsung hero of the civil rights movement who is being remembered this month, Harry T. Moore.  Donna Green-Townsend reports, Moore, who was born, raised and died in Florida, is finally receiving national acclaim for the civil rights groundwork he started in the state in the 1940s fighting for civil rights.

“It had all the elements of a great story.  I mean here was an American hero.  Very few people were knowledgeable about this story.  The first civil rights martyr. You know, it was just a terrific topic.”

Documentary Co-director and writer of “Freedom Never Dies:  The Legacy of Harry T. Moore,” Sandra Dickson.

“We thought the story transcended Florida, that it had national significance.”

Although a few writers have documented the life of Harry T. Moore, his name has not been synonymous with the civil rights movement at the national level.  Yet Dickson along with her co-director, Churchill Roberts, both from the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, discovered Moore had a very large role in the 1930s and 40s, travelling relentlessly, encouraging blacks to vote and corresponding with authorities over issues of inequality in teachers’ salaries for blacks and whites and conducting investigations into a number of lynchings in Florida.

(nat sound from documentary)

The documentary opens with what happened on Harry T. Moore’s last night.  Christmas, 1951, Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriett had just gone to bed in their home inside a small orange grove in Mims, Florida just north of Titusville.  Within minutes, a bomb destroyed their lives.  Ironic he would die a violent death when historians write about how calmly he spoke out about injustices he saw for blacks in Florida in the 1930s and 1940s.  Frank Williams is featured in the documentary.  He was one of Moore’s friends.

“He was not violent.  He was so calm and collected.  And so that’s what made people even more angry.  Here this guy comes with a pleasant voice and says well, ‘we think it’s time that we should have equal salaries.  It’s only fair.  It’s only the right thing to do.’  He was a most determined man.  Nothing could discourage him.  Nothing could turn him around.  It is as if God Almighty himself said you go down there and do that.”

Moore was born in 1905 in Houston, Florida in Suwannee County.  He was an only child.  His father died when he was 9.  His mother sent him off to Jacksonville to live with his aunts and go to school.  He finished high school however in Suwannee County.  He eventually became a school teacher and principal.  He had two daughters.  He eventually lost his teaching job because of  participation in the NAACP.  He travelled continuously around the state organizing new chapters of the organization and encouraging blacks to vote.  Moore’s friend Ernestine Jamerson also appears in the documentary and recalls how Moore encouraged her to get to know the candidates.

“Whoever was running for an office, he would go to them and find out their platform.  Then he would come back, meet at any one of the churches and we would go and he would explain their platform and what he thought was good and what he thought was the best for us and which was not.”

(nat sound from the documentary of a letter being read that was written by Moore:

“To honorable J. Harry Shad, candidate for U.S. Senate, Gainesville, Florida. Dear sir, we note that your platform makes no mention of your stand on such vital issues as anti-lynching legislation.  We note also that you express clearly your opposition to communism, but you fail to state your attitude with reference to the KKK.  We shall appreciate an expression of your views on these issues.  Respectively yours, Harry T. Moore, Executive Secretary, Progressive Voters League of Florida.”

Harry Moore is probably best known for his correspondence to state officials on a number of lynchings around the state by the KKK and others.  He was particularly disturbed by the lynching of a 15 year old Suwannee County youth named Willie James Howard in 1944.  Howard was bound and forced into Suwannee Springs to drown after he had written a Christmas card and letter to a white girl named Cynthia Goff.  Cynthia was the daughter of a former state legislator Phil Goff.  A black undertaker removed the body from the river the next day and buried him in an unmarked grave in Live Oak’s Eastside Cemetery.  A grand jury found no evidence to move forward with any arrests.  Howard’s parents moved away in fear.  Documentary co-director Roberts says they found Howard’s mother during the shooting of the documentary, but she was too afraid to talk.

“In the process of our investigation, or during the investigation we found that the mother of the young boy who’d been lynched, who was only 15 years old at the time, that she was still alive.  She had moved to Orlando in 1944 when this happened.  But when we went to see if we could talk to her, she wouldn’t talk to us.  And her minister didn’t know about this.  And her cousin said, to this day she won’t talk about it for fear that white people from Live Oak would come and get her.”

(nat sound and music from the documentary)

With the completion of the documentary and the national attention it’s getting, Dickson says she feels she’s achieved her mission.

“I think we felt like this was a forgotten hero and we wanted to restore him to his rightful place, or at least play a small part in restoring him to his rightful place in history, not just African American history, history in general.”

The NAACP erected a marker near the Moore’s tombstone in Mims, Florida a number of years ago and the Brevard County Courthouse is named after them.  A year and a half ago the state appropriated funds to erect a museum on his homesite.  Documentary co-director Dickson would also like to see something else happen in honor of Moore.

“I think it’s safe to say we’d also love to see his name added to the civil rights monument in Montgomery, Alabama”

(sound from the documentary)

(quote from Moore:  “Dear co-workers, freedom never descends upon people.  It is always bought with a price.  Harry T. Moore.”

(music out to end)