Bernice Johnson Reagon, Civil rights Florida, Emmett Till, Harry Moore assassination, Harry T. Moore, Medgar Evers, Southern Poverty Law Center
My God called to me in morning dew; the Power Of The Universe knows my name. He gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way; now, I raise my voice for justice and I believe.*
On this day in 1905 teacher, Harry T. Moore, was born. He went on to put his considerable talents to use with the NAACP, establishing 50 branches in the state of Florida. His Florida Progressive Voters League would register over 100,000 black voters, more than in all the other southern states combined. He was, as Bernice Johnson Reagon said, “so successful they had to kill him.”
He and his wife, Harriett, died on Christmas Day in 1951 when a bomb, planted beneath their bedroom floor, exploded. The Moores’ assassination predates what the Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Civil Rights Era. So, he wasn’t included in their Memphis memorial and still lingers deep in the shadows of iconic figures like 14 year-old Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.
Harry T. Moore didn’t single handedly start the struggle for voting rights, but he was putting up one hell of a fight, long before politicians or the press seemed to care, while the KKK’s own Warren Fuller served as Governor of Florida. Moore was a rare figure in history who walked onto the battlefield not knowing if a single soul would follow him.
They did follow and over the next 17 years shots rang out across Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Texas. Incidents seared into our national psyche, would eventually command attention of the highest levels of government, but not before 39 names were added the list of Civil Right Martyrs.
Most of them, like Moore, walked straight into the fire. None could have doubted the credibility of the constant threats. Recalling the event years later, Myrlie Evers hadn’t thought a car backfired, or children were playing with fire crackers or that there was anything remotely unequivocal about the sound she’d heard in front of her Mississippi home in 1963. When asked what she thought at the first loud bang, she answered flatly, “I knew they killed my husband.”
I’ve poured over photos from that era and, lately, am more drawn to the personal ones. There’s that famous shot of a beaming Martin Luther King on the courthouse steps while Coretta plants one on his cheek and Medgar Evers, looking like any other groom cutting the cake while Myrlie leans into him. There’s Moore resting on his lawn while Harriett nuzzles against his neck. Like men dream of becoming heroes, I wonder of these heroes ever dreamt of just being men.
There’s one photo of Harry T. Moore that compels me the most, though. Leaning on the hood of a car, wearing a bright white shirt and tie flying in the breeze, his eyes seem focused on something distant, but clear. His eyes seem to answer all the questions I’ve ever had about him and the others. It’s a look that makes it almost possible to understad how they did it, how they pushed passed the instinct for self-preservation, how they didn’t recoil from the heat, how they resisted telling their children it would stop and they’d live quiet subservient lives, how they already owned a victory they’d never see.
His eyes pierce right though the clutter and the excuses, the convoluted babble and inconvenience. They focus, laser-like, on one indisputable fact: The right to equality is inherent. It needs no defense, no explanation, no postponement and God knows, it needs no compromise. For anyone. Ever.
* “I Remember, I Believe” Bernice Johnson Reagon