Attorney General Crist in 2005 discussing the case
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 Lake, 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 some ways and a close ally of Klan. McCall was national figure of some stature, and cast a very negative image on Florida, a state that was even more dependent on tourism at that point in time.
PBS produced a documentary called Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore which 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 in the union. 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 at least rhetorically 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.
The state’s Democratic Party establishment wanted to sweep the entire episode under the rug. Despite efforts by African-American leaders to reopen the case time and again, the Democrats who ran FDLE and the AG’s office through the years avoided the subject. For newer political activists, it may come as a surprise but a large part of the Democratic Party’s establishment in the 1990s in the state was still tied to areas of Florida where racial wounds had not been healed. It should also be noted at the time that the I-4 corridor areas of the state were more Republican than they are today, meaning Democrats needed to win in the Big Bend and Panhandle, as well as the rural counties in the middle of the state to be successful statewide.
So the Democrats did nothing to reopen these cases or get to the truth. But Charlie Crist who won the Attorney General’s election in 2002 was a Republican and not encumbered by these considerations.
Attorney General Crist pushed publicly for an aggressive FDLE investigation into the Moore murder and other Civil Rights related tragedies. In 2005, FDLE concluded the culpability of the elected officials (all Democrats) 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. Additionally, Charlie Crist deserves full marks for his willingness to stand the establishment in the eye and deal with this tragedy once and for all.