A Marker for Moore: Recognizing a civil rights crime
GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Jerry Smith recalls being a 10th-grader in Collinsville, back in April 1963, when he and friends passed a man walking, with signs on his chest and back.
“He was pushing or pulling some sort of cart,” Smith remembered. “By the time he was gone, I didn’t think any more about it.”
Smith said he remembers thinking the signs — messages against segregation and in support of civil rights — probably weren’t not the smartest thing, given the tensions in Alabama at that time.
“When I found out he’d been killed, that was a hard pill to swallow,” he said.
The man Smith saw that day was William Lewis Moore, a Baltimore postal worker walking from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to deliver a letter he’d written to the state’s governor.
He never made it to Mississippi. Moore was shot and died on the side of the road in the Keener area of Etowah County, not far inside the county line.
Smith is working with Danny Crownover of the Etowah Historical Society to get a historical marker placed in honor of Moore, at the spot along U.S. Highway 11 where he died.
Smith talked to the Etowah County Commission about funding for a historical marker. He and Crownover have communicated with the Alabama Historical Association, which receives applications for such markers and approves them. Smith said the cost of the marker is expected to be in the range of $3,000, possibly a little more.
He said the Southern Poverty Law Center would pay for the marker, but as a resident of Etowah County, he believed it should be an county-funded effort. He asked commission members about funding, and Commissioner Joey Statum said he would give $500 from his discretionary funds.
Commissioner Johnny Grant said he also would donate to the project, and fellow commissioners expressed interest as well.
Grant, a former investigator with the Etowah County District Attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office, investigated the case about 30 years after Moore was killed. He said he still gets calls about the case, some from students doing writing projects.
He and a couple of commissioners shared what they knew of the incident — that it happened near former County Commissioner Harry Sizemore’s farm, and the person who found Moore’s body went to the Sizemore home to contact authorities.
Probate Judge Bobby Junkins said he believes it is Alabama’s only unsolved civil rights murder.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched new investigations into unsolved civil rights crimes, starting in 2007. It began an investigation into Moore’s murder in 2010, according to a letter from the USDOJ, marking the end of that probe.
According to the letter, a federal criminal civil rights violation could not be proved because there was insufficient independent eyewitness corroboration of allegations.
Grant said by the time he investigated the case, all the suspects were dead, so no charges could be brought.
He said looking at all the communications between federal authorities and local prosecutors at the time, there was conflict between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the local district attorney and that influenced the outcome of the initial investigation.
A DeKalb County businessman was arrested and his rifle was seized four days after the shooting. He owned a 1950 Buick like the one seen near the scene of the shooting, and had contacts with Moore prior to the shooting.
According to the letter from the Department of Justice, a suspect’s rifle was tested and the state toxicologist gave an opinion that cartridges found at the scene were fired from the suspect’s gun.
However, the FBI forensic examiner reported similarities between the recovered hulls and test hulls fired from the gun, but said they were insufficient to support a definitive identification.
Grant said letters in the file indicated Hoover insisted that only one expert testify before the grand jury, and the grand jury did not indict the suspect.
After Moore was killed, Smith said there were three suspects’ names going around in the community, who were believed to have been involved in the shooting.
“The names of the assailants were publicly known,” Smith said, and he was surprised to find that he knew two of the three men named.
“I only knew them because I was ‘sweet on’ a girl from that community,” he said. “That capacity that I knew them was as church-going, strong men of God-type people.”
The idea that one or both were involved in the murder was hard for him to believe.
Smith said the story was that Moore had a banner saying that Jesus was a traitor. News stories and the DOJ letter report that in addition to a sandwich-board sign saying “Eat at Joes Place, both black and white” and “Equal Rights for All, Mississippi or Bust,” Moore had a poster with an image of Jesus captioned, “Wanted for Sedition.”
Smith said the suspects talked with the victim. He believes there was “verbal sparring” then, and after Moore left the store operated by one of the suspects, the exchange continued to “eat at” the suspects.
Coupled with the tensions of the time — “the rhetoric of (former Gov.) George Wallace” — Smith believes, that gnawing anger led to regrettable actions.
“Everyone was so worked up by George Wallace,” he said, and his talk of “outside agitators.”
“He was such a fire-eater,” Smith said. “People believed George Wallace back then. It was a shame.”
While there are no excuses for the crime or the fact that it remains unresolved, Smith said it should be acknowledged with a marker.
“Sadly, it’s been 55 years, but at least it’s going to be done,” he said. “It should have been done decades ago.”
Information from: The Gadsden Times, http://www.gadsdentimes.com