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Slaying of Baltimore civil rights protester still unsolved

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Everyone begged William Lewis Moore not to go to Mississippi. His pastor told him he would get killed walking around in a sandwich board sign protesting segregation. His family worried about where he would sleep and eat.

Even fellow civil rights activists told the Baltimore postal worker it was a bad idea to walk hundreds of miles through the heart of the South. But Moore insisted on hand-delivering a letter to the governor of Mississippi, urging the staunch segregationist to change.

Moore never made it to Jackson, Miss. He was shot to death on April 23, 1963, after crossing into Alabama. Although police quickly identified a suspect, no one was ever charged. The unsolved crime left Moore's family wondering for 50 years whether someone would come after them, too.

Now the FBI has closed the case, arriving at the same probable suspect: a local merchant who spoke with Moore twice on the day of his death. The agency's investigative report details the last steps of Moore, who had tried to allay his family's fears by reminding them that he had been a Marine and that Marines could handle anything.

President John F. Kennedy marked Moore's death, and he was memorialized on monuments in New York and Montgomery, Ala. He's remembered today for the bravery he inspired, becoming a rallying cry for a movement that saw passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act a year later.

But even after the FBI closed Moore's case in March, his stepdaughter Marilyn Munn says his walk has left their family with a different legacy: fear.

It came from the hate letters, hangups and strange knocks on the door just days after his murder. It followed Munn and her siblings to college, where the FBI monitored them at their mother's request. The unease grew in the absence of a conviction in her father's killing. None will ever come; the FBI's main suspect died in 1998.

Decades passed, America changed, the Ku Klux Klan grew irrelevant and a black man was elected president.

"Things have changed in the country, and I shouldn't be worried anymore," she acknowledges. But the fear never left.

A man's journey

Moore had always been an activist, known for his lone protests in Binghamton, N.Y. People called him an oddball, and he didn't disagree. He didn't hide the mental breakdown he suffered in the early 1950s or his treatment for schizophrenia. It led him to write a book about his time in an institution and to start a newsletter to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.

Moore moved to an apartment in the 400 block of E. 25th St. in Baltimore because he wanted to be closer to civil rights organizations. His wife, Mary, and three stepchildren planned to join him after the school year.

In March 1963, he was arrested in a segregation protest at the Northwood Theatre in the Hillen neighborhood. Before Moore started his walk down South, he had saved up vacation days and traveled to Washington in a failed attempt to deliver another letter, this one urging Kennedy to push harder for integration.

On April 21, Moore, 35, got off a bus in Chattanooga, Tenn., and began what would be a nearly 400-mile walk. He had briefly lived in Mississippi as a child and felt troubled watching the state's governor, Ross Barnett, publicly defend segregation in speeches while Confederate flags waved behind him.

Moore walked barefoot much of the time. His sandwich board sign said: "End Segregation in America — Black or White, Eat at Joe's" on one side and "Equal Rights for All. Mississippi or Bust" on the other. He pushed a cart that carried some belongings and bore another provocative sign: "Wanted: Jesus Christ. Agitator, Carpenter by Trade, Revolutionary, Consorter with Criminals and Prostitutes."

Though many had marched as part of the growing civil rights movement, the spectacle of a white man walking alone — and in such a get-up — drew attention from reporters and passersby.

"1,000 miles to Miss., walking all the way," read a headline in the Baltimore Afro-American.

But as Moore approached Alabama, curiosity gave way to concern. People warned that he was headed into a caldron simmering over segregation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had penned his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" just a week before.

The previous year, Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr., a military police officer stationed in Maryland, was visiting his sick wife in Mississippi when a police officer ordered him off a bus and shot him dead. The Southern Poverty Law Center said Ducksworth, a black man, might have been mistaken for a Freedom Rider.

Moore ran into well-wishers as well as those who disagreed with his message. Some restaurants didn't want to serve him. When asked what he was selling, Moore told one woman "integration," an exchange he recorded in his journal.

'Pushing it'

In tiny Collbran, Ala., along Route 11, he passed a small grocery store on the morning of April 23. Floyd Simpson, who ran the store, and others called him over, according to the FBI.

"Invited to chat with a few men who had heard about my walk on TV (the first news break)," Moore wrote in his journal. "They didn't think I'd finish my walk alive. They didn't think people believed I really stood for the things I do."

More than 30 miles down the road, about 3:30 p.m., Simpson and another man drove up to confront Moore again.

"Fellow says my walk mentioned in today's Birmingham Post-Herald," Moore wrote. "A couple of men who had talked to me before drove up and questioned my religious and political beliefs. 'Now I know what you are,' one of the men said. And one was sure I'd be killed for them, such as my 'Jesus' poster on my buggy."

Law enforcement officials tried to order him off the road. That evening an Etowah County sheriff's deputy spoke to Moore for 30 minutes, warning that his life was in danger, but Moore refused to stop.

Moore wouldn't listen to Charlie Hicks, either. Hicks was a radio reporter for WGAD, a station in nearby Gadsden. Someone had called the station with word of Moore's walk.

Hicks, now 74 and living in Tennessee, remembers what a strange sight Moore cut in the night, his large 6-foot-2-inch frame enveloped by a sandwich board, walking alone on a dark two-lane highway. Hicks walked up and found Moore engaging and personable, but stubborn and resolved to press on.

"When I found out what his plans were, I said, 'Man, this is not the place to do what you are trying to do. I appreciate what you're trying to do but you're putting your life in danger,'" Hicks recalled.

Hicks told Moore that he didn't understand how ingrained segregation was in Alabama. The reporter couldn't comprehend why Moore was risking his life over a demonstration likely to have minimal impact.

"I couldn't understand why the man was pushing it this way," Hicks says. "He couldn't make the wheels turn. … For nothing, he died."

Hicks said he would call the Alabama Highway Patrol to escort Moore. He proposed taking him to a motel, his own home or the radio station. Turned down again, he urged Moore to at least bed down in a brush pile off the road.

Hicks, who had a wife and young child, was beginning to fear for his own life as they talked. He returned to the radio station and called the local sheriff's office to see if they could pry him off the road.

At 8:59 p.m., the Alabama Highway Patrol reported a body lying on the edge of the road at a picnic area about four miles south of the Etowah-DeKalb county line. It was Moore, dead, with .22-caliber bullet wounds to his head and throat.

Halting prosecution

Kennedy called the murder an "outrageous crime." Whites who had been on the sidelines of the civil rights fight saw for the first time a Northern white man consumed by violence they thought was limited to blacks in the South. Blacks saw just how far segregationists would go.

"He was white and he was killed. That in itself triggered a lot of things in both the black and white community," says Robert Avery, a Gadsden City Council member. "That opened a lot of people's eyes. If they killed a white man for protesting in the South, then we were in pretty bad shape, and that kicked off the movement in big numbers here."

But back in New York, Moore's family felt alone, isolated with few neighbors. Mary Moore had learned of her husband's death through a collect call from the coroner.

A black Southern minister who pledged to collect funds for the funeral and the family never sent back a cent, Munn says. She also remembers that her stepfather's body was late arriving for the funeral because it was put on the wrong train.

When it did arrive, Munn recalls, she saw what looked like clay or Silly Putty inexpertly concealing the bullet holes.

Letters arrived, some filled with condolences, some with threats.

"People drove up and knew who we were and wanted to see us," Munn says.

"They didn't seem to be the people you'd want to talk to, judging by their demeanor. It happened once when Mom was alone and that really scared her. It happened once when we were all there and Mom locked the door and said, 'Sorry, I can't talk to you.'"

What made matters worse was the halting prosecution of Simpson, the man suspected in Moore's death. He was arrested four days after the killing. Investigators said Simpson had links to the Ku Klux Klan, and witnesses had seen a car like the one he drove near the spot where Moore was shot.

The state compared shells from the murder scene and bullets from Moore's body with rounds fired from Simpson's rifle. An examination showed that shell markings were identical to those on the test casings. The bullets seemed to match, too, but investigators couldn't say for sure because the bullets from Moore's body were too battered to compare. They also couldn't rule out the possibility that an identical gun might have killed Moore.

On Sept. 13, 1963, a grand jury reviewed the evidence and declined to indict Simpson.

Time passed. Witnesses and investigators died. The bullets somehow disappeared, along with other evidence.

Unending unease

As a child, Munn had taken interest in Moore's constant letter-writing to politicians and newspapers. He showed interest in her piano playing, and always took time to explain the news events going on in the world.

"I envy my friends who've had one mom and dad all their life," Munn says. "Dad gets to walk them down the aisle. Dad gets to do this and that. We didn't have that. My mom walked me down the aisle."

Now 65, Munn is married and living outside Phoenix, Ariz. She has children, but won't disclose their names. She won't share much about herself either, but says she is involved in church choirs and is the treasurer for a community chorale.

Her brother died in 2011; her sister declined to be interviewed.

"My sister's always worried," Munn says. "If I give out too much information, she's still worried that she will be bothered."

Munn has safeguarded her stepfather's belongings, including the cart he pulled along on his walk, his duffel bag, his journal and a 4-inch bust of Abraham Lincoln he had kept in his Baltimore apartment.

Asked where the items are located, she says they are in a "secure place." She gets anxious discussing them but can't really say why.

"I don't know," she says. "I just get nervous."

Revisiting old cases

The Moore case became eligible for a new look when, in 2006, the FBI began a cold-case Initiative to investigate slayings committed during the civil rights era.

The main goal was to determine if any perpetrators could be prosecuted. If not, the agency hoped to bring closure to families whose cases may have been undermined, overlooked or ignored because of the racial climate of the era.

FBI Civil Rights Division unit chief Matthew W. Drake says time was also a factor. More witnesses, victims, suspects and investigators were dying each year.

A total of 112 cases have been reopened, but only one has resulted in a federal conviction while another was successfully prosecuted by the state of Alabama. In some cases, investigators found that evidence had been destroyed. Other suspects are protected by constitutional prohibitions against repeat prosecution. And some incidents are too old to be covered by 1968 federal laws against racially motivated homicides.

The main obstacle: In about half of the cases the FBI has re-examined, suspects are dead.

When the investigations conclude, FBI agents hand-deliver detailed letters to the victims' next of kin — if they can find them.

Grace Hal Miller, widowed in 1965 when her husband, Hosie Miller, was shot, received a letter in 2011. Investigators had concluded that the main suspect was dead.

"At least it gave us some closure," the 80-year-old woman says. "I knew nothing could be done when they came out here because it had been 40 years since."

The FBI reopened Moore's case in 2009 and closed it in March with no new leads.

Federal agents never reached Moore's stepchildren, though FBI spokesman Chris Allen says the agency tried to deliver a letter to more than one of Moore's relatives. Nobody would accept it. Mary Moore, who had remarried, died in 2008.

Upon learning that Moore's case was closed and a letter outlining the findings was available, The Baltimore Sun requested the letter under the Freedom of Information Act and gave Munn a copy.

"Unfortunately, I don't believe this case will ever be decided," she said before reading it. "It's sad. I would just like to know. I would like to know what people have heard."

The Department of Justice letter detailing the FBI's findings says agents combed through state, local and federal files. They interviewed an attorney whose father represented Simpson; the man said his father's records were destroyed in an office fire. They spoke to people who knew about Klan activities in DeKalb County in the 1960s, and to a Simpson relative who couldn't recall him or his wife ever mentioning Moore's death.

Agents did not get a chance to sift through Moore's journal for clues because they never got in touch with Munn.

Agents also couldn't talk to Simpson, who is still regarded as the main suspect in Moore's death.

"An exhaustive review conducted by the FBI and attorneys from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division did not produce any new leads," the report concluded. "Instead, the review suggests that the most probable subject involved in the murder is Floyd Simpson, who is deceased."

Marching forward

While Munn now knows what the FBI found in re-investigating her father's case, she still thinks about how Moore was shot from the front. Did he know the killer? Had he met him during his walk? Did they interact?

It would help if someone stepped forward saying Simpson had confessed to the murder, she says. But knowing the main suspect is dead does give her some peace.

As the 50th anniversary of Moore's death approached in late April, Munn sat at her computer and typed out a short letter to the newspaper in her stepfather's hometown of Binghamton. It reminded readers of his contributions to history, and thanked the city for recognizing him on a local monument.

An email came back from an editor, thanking her but seeking more information. The newspaper needed to include her address to publish the letter to the editor.

Munn felt the same fear that had dogged her all her life. But then she thought about her stepfather's courage and conviction.

"He was willing to walk down this road without any protection," she says. "Why wouldn't I want to put down my name and my city?"

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative

Other cases the FBI re-investigated include:

•Hosie Miller, a black farmer and Baptist deacon in Newton, Ga., was fatally shot in 1965 after he reportedly told a white neighbor he wanted to settle a dispute in court. The FBI closed the case in 2011, saying agents believe the neighbor was responsible, but he was dead and could not be prosecuted.

O'Neal Moore, a Washington Parish, La., police officer, was killed in 1965, just a year after being named the area's first black officer. A reported white supremacist was arrested but charges were dropped. More than five years have passed since the FBI reopened Moore's case, and it remains open. "I don't have any answers," Moore's widow, Maevella Moore, says. "I want to know who."

Louis Allen was shot in his driveway in Liberty, Miss., in 1964. The FBI said an investigating officer in the case was "potentially involved" in the slaying. But no arrests have been made, and the case remains open.

Charles Moore and Henry Dee, of Franklin County, Miss. Ku Klux Klan members kidnapped the teens in 1964, chained them to a Jeep engine block and pushed them into the Mississippi River, the FBI said. James Ford Seale and Charles Edwards were arrested, but the charges were dropped. After reopening the case, authorities granted immunity to Edwards — who agents said did not participate in the killings. He testified against Seale, who was convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy and sentenced to three life terms.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in 1965 after a civil rights protest in Marion, Ala. State trooper James Bonard Fowler said his gun discharged after Jackson struck his hand, but witnesses reported seeing Fowler deliberately shoot Jackson, the FBI said. In 2007, with FBI assistance, local authorities charged Fowler with murder. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2010 at age 77 and received a six-month prison sentence.

Source: FBI records and interviews

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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