1951: When Terror Struck Florida

With last week’s events in Boston in addition to several History Channel programs last week on the Ku Klux Klan reminded me of one of the darkest episodes in Florida’s history, the murder of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore. In 1951 when Moore was murdered in Mims, local Democrats in Orange and Brevard County were not only segregationists but were sympathetic to hoodlums in the Ku Klux Klan. Even worse yet was the infamous Willis V. McCall, the Lake County Sheriff who was in the 1950s the best known local enforcement officer in the state, more powerful than Governors in many ways and a close ally of Klan.

PBS did a great documentary called “Freedom Never Dies” not long ago and it contained a whole section on Moore. Under Moore’s leadership African-American registration rose 31% in Florida between World War II and the 1950 election. But Florida in the McCarthy era was as reactionary a state as any. The 1950 election saw Senator Claude Pepper, one of the leading liberals in the country defeated by Ed Ball’s coalition of business groups and Governor Fuller Warren, a populist (and a former Klan member himself) survived several impeachment attempts as he tried to move the state forward economically. (Warren was a classic southern populist of the day- racist to his core while being for the “little guy,” meaning poor whites. This caused problems with the established order.)

Moore’s involvement in a number of high profile cases including the “Groveland Four” case led to his targeting by the state’s political hierarchy.  The Groveland Case became an international event with the Soviet Union exploiting it for propaganda purposes. While Moore’s death on Christmas Night 1951 was thought to be linked to the Groveland case, the FBI which under J. Edgar Hoover tended to be hostile to Civil Rights yet very aggressive in targeting domestic terrorism (hence, Hoover’s simultaneous harassment of Martin Luther King AND the Ku Klux Klan) did an extensive investigation which could not link McCall and the Lake County Klan.

An FDLE investigation pushed by then Attorney General Crist in 2005 concluded the culpability of the elected officials in Orange County who had aligned with the Klan, and that the four men responsible for Moore’s murder were from Orange County.

Christmas Day 1951, terror and political assassination rolled into one stuck Florida. The state’s Democratic Party hierarchy reacted with scorn to the national press calling for an FBI Investigation. Legislative leadership in Florida began using the terms “outside agitators” and state sovereignty, themes that would dominate the rhetoric of the next decade in Florida politics.

We should never forget the murder of Harry T. Moore, Florida’s brush with terrorism and the the appropriate event that started the Civil Rights revolution in Florida.

6 comments

  1. Excellent Florida history research and writing here for public education.

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  2. McCall eventually beat and killed a black prisoner and was removed from office by Askew.

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  3. […] in reopening the 1951 case of the murder of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore in Mims. This case as we discussed in April was brushed under the rug by the state’s leadership and Democratic Party at the time despite […]

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  4. […] April we ran a piece on the 1951 murder of Harry T. Moore, one of the most significant killings during the Civil Rights […]

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  5. […] Central Florida. Orange, Lake and Brevard Counties were the biggest hotbeds of Klan activity. The murder of Harry T. Moore in 1951 was one of the most vivid examples of law enforcement aiding the Klan in […]

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  6. […] Central Florida. Orange, Lake and Brevard Counties were the biggest hotbeds of Klan activity. The murder of Harry T. Moore in 1951 was one of the most vivid examples of local law enforcement  in Central Florida aiding the Klan in […]

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