‘Icons before their time’: Meet civil rights pioneers Harry & Harriette Moore

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — The civil rights movement started in Central Florida with the murder of Harry and Harriette Moore in 1951 in Brevard County.

It’s often overshadowed by the work of activists in other southern states.

“Harry and Harriette Moore was truly two icons before their time. He was the most hated Black man in the state of Florida,” Sonya Mallard said.

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Mallard works alongside Carshonda Wright at the Harry and Harriette Moore Cultural Complex. Both spoke with us about their extensive knowledge of the history of the Moore family.

“Harry T. Moore saw the unfairness in the school system. Black teachers was making like real less money compared to their white counterparts so he spoke up, said something,” Mallard said.

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They lived in Mims, a rural part of Brevard County, and taught in segregated public schools in the county from 1925 to 1946.

“From the governor’s office all the way down, that said he was a troublemaker, agitator, he was mobilizing these Blacks,” recalled Rev. Randolph Bracy, the former president of the Orange County NAACP and longtime pastor.

Mr. Moore was so smart in school that others jokingly called him “Doc” because he excelled in his studies. He decided to become a teacher because he figured it was a good way to effect change. He got his first teaching job in Cocoa.

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Mrs. Moore’s mother gave them land, which is currently where the cultural complex is located, alongside a yellow replica home depicting where the Moores built their home.

“She [Mrs. Moore] was a willing participant in going out and making sure that everything was going to be equal so that her girls would have the same opportunity in education, in getting jobs that everyone else in American had,” Mallard said.

During that time everything was segregated. Rev. Bracy said inequality was the norm.

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“Say for instance if you had come out with a bachelor’s degree and you were white you made $10,000. If you were Black, you made $4,000 to $5,000,” Bracy said.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones asked Mallard why more people don’t know their story.

“It’s not in our history books, nobody is sharing it. It’s like they don’t like to bring the skeletons out the closet. We don’t want to put a tarnish on our town, our state. But that’s what happened,” Mallard said.

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As the Moores continued to fight for equality through education, another movement was also gaining reinvigorated momentum – the Ku Klux Klan.

“What they’re [KKK] doing is coming to power in companies, in the police department in the government and they’re secretly having this organization and meetings to systematically suppress people who are not like themselves, i.e. Black people,” Wright said.

By 1934, Moore had started the Brevard County NAACP, leading a movement to open branches across the state. And then, with the help of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, Moore filed the first lawsuit in the south on behalf of Black teachers in Brevard County for equal pay, while he and his wife were still working for the school district.

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“After that first lawsuit they lost their jobs, they say they resigned, they were really pushed out and then he became the first unpaid secretary for the NAACP,” Mallard said.

Moore lost that lawsuit, but it encouraged others to litigate similar cases across the state. And at the same time, Moore had taken on another fight: voting and police brutality against Blacks.

“You have a Black man who was able to register 116,000 people to vote in Florida, not only register them but exercise that right, that changes the political climate. Now on top of changing the political climate he’s going after people for criminal action,” Wright explained.

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Locals advocated to have the Brevard County School Board reinstate the Moores.

The people he called criminals then were local law enforcement officers, and others in the community who made up white supremacist groups like the KKK. Moore penned many letters to the governor pleading for investigations into lynchings in Black communities.

When he got no help, he investigated each case himself.

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“Florida has an infamous history especially in the ’30s ’40s it was the lynching capital, per capita, of the country -- not Mississippi, not Alabama, not Georgia,” Bracy said.

The Equal Justice Institute documented 314 lynchings in Florida between 1870 and 1950. Moore’s work had the attention of white people in power, but he didn’t fear death. He grew bolder, and got involved in the Groveland Four case in Lake County, mincing no words when he demanded then-Sheriff Willis McCall be indicted for murder for his role in leading brutal attacks against the four wrongly accused Black men, even shooting two of them, killing one.

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Weeks after Moore called for McCall to be indicted, the KKK made their way to his home in Mims. It was Christmas Day and the Moores’ wedding anniversary.

“They saw when they turned off the lights, and they crawled under the house like a snake, they lit the dynamite and that’s when it blew up. They said that was the loudest bomb heard around the world,” Mallard said.

The hospital in Brevard County refused to treat Harry and Harriette Moore because they were Black. Harry died on the way to a hospital in Sanford, his wife died nine days later. Both left behind a legacy that led to the civil rights movement.

“He was fighting against lynchings, police brutality, equal pay, right to vote, all of those things he saw in the 1930s, ’40s, would be pivotal things, that would change America the fact that those are things we are still looking at now goes to show you how forward thinking he was, he was a man before his time,” Wright said.

The Harry and Harriette Moore Cultural Complex is located in Mims and is open to the public for tours.

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