1951- 52 Investigation
J. Edgar Hoover was certainly no friend of civil rights, and his abysmal track record in later civil rights cases (including his vicious persecution of Martin Luther King and his extra-legal COINTELPRO operations against other civil rights leaders and organizations) has, not surprisingly, led to decades of speculation that the FBI only half-heartedly tried to solve the Moore case, at best, and at worst, may have even covered up the murders. Today, it is possible to respond to those charges with hard facts, rather than speculation, as a result of a courageous decision by State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, representing Brevard County, who in 1992 made the complete, unedited FBI case files available to the public (as opposed to the heavily redacted files typically released by the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act).
What those unedited files show is that the FBI conducted a surprisingly thorough and exhaustive investigation, with Hoover taking a strong personal interest in the case. Although he was more likely motivated by a desire to offset the negative publicity that the Bureau was receiving in the wake of the unsolved Florida bombings, rather than by any personal commitment to racial justice, the Bureau nonetheless mounted a full-bore, aggressive investigation of the Ku Klux Klan in neighboring Orange County, which was infested with Klansmen (including the local sheriff and several other elected officials).
Agents developed informants to infiltrate Klan chapters, installed telephone taps (some of which may have been illegal) and maintained intense physical surveillance on suspects; indeed, Hoover used some of the same techniques against the Klan in 1952 that he was later criticized for using against civil rights and leftist organizations in the 1960s.
Agents on the Scene
Before daylight on the morning of December 26, FBI agents from Daytona Beach had arrived on the scene in front of Harry Moore's wrecked home, and by that evening a "special squad" of seventeen agents had turned Mims' only motel into a command headquarters. The local sheriff, whose staff consisted solely of himself and two deputies, deferred almost completely to the Bureau's overwhelming manpower and expertise, although he cooperated with the FBI and provided the first big break in the case.
While one team of FBI agents swarmed over and under Moore's house, searching for clues, other agents fanned out across the state, interviewing every resident of Mims and all of Moore's NAACP and PVL associates. Harriette Moore was interviewed three times in her hospital bed, prior to her death on January 3, 1952. Among Moore's friends and relatives, the most likely motive for his death was his involvement in the Groveland case. And when anyone mentioned Groveland, one name inevitably came to mind: Sheriff Willis V. McCall of Lake County, Florida, who in December, 1951, was the most notorious law officer in the country. His name would be intractably linked to Moore's for over forty years.
Other initial suspects included A. Fortenberry, the former chairman of the Brevard County Commission, whom Moore had helped defeat in 1950; and a Mims citrus grower who had threatened Moore several weeks earlier, telling a black preacher that Moore's "neck should be broken" because he was "putting notions in niggers' heads."
The Prime Suspects
The first testimony linking the Klan to the murder surfaced on December 31, 1951, when five black residents of Mims said that two white men had come into the Mims Confectionary Store in July 1951, asking directions to Moore's house. One witness, O.K. Washington, provided detailed physical descriptions of the two men. [View Washington Interview]
When his descriptions were relayed to informants in the Orange County Klan, three informants immediately identified them as Tillman H. Belvin and Earl Brooklyn, two "renegade" Klansmen with violent reputations. One informant even claimed that Brooklyn had displayed a hand-drawn floor plan of Moore's house at a Klan meeting and had asked for help to "do a few jobs." [View Informant Interview]
This was a sensational break, and Hoover urged agents to "give very prompt and thorough attention." Over the next two weeks, the focus of the investigation shifted powerfully to Brooklyn and Belvin, both of whom were suffering from serious medical problems. Agents began interviewing all known Klansmen in Orange County. Among those was Joseph Neville Cox, 61, an "old-time Klansman" (from the heyday of the Klan in the 1920s) who was secretary of the Oralando klavern. [View Brooklyn Interview; View Belvin Interview]
Putting Pressure on the Klan
Although agents were not finding any direct evidence linking Brooklyn or Belvin to the Moore bombings, or any corroboration of Brooklyn's showing the floor plan, they were uncovering a great deal of evidence about other violent incidents, including the murder of a black custodian, Melvin Womack, in March 1951, the shooting of a black taxi driver, the bombing of a ice cream parlor in Orlando that refused to have a separate service window for blacks, and numerous floggings.
FBI leaders developed a strategy of pursuing these other incidents, hoping that by putting pressure on Klansmen about those, someone would eventually crack on the Moore bombing. By late March 1952, the strategy appeared to be working: a half-dozen Klansmen had provided sworn statements implicating their brother Klansmen in a litany of terrorist acts. On March 29, Joseph Neville Cox was interviewed a second time. He kept asking if the FBI's evidence would hold up in court, attributing his inquisitiveness to human nature. The next day, he committed suicide. The FBI was so locked in on Brooklyn and Belvin, and other known members of the Klan's "wrecking crews," that the light bulb never went on.
The Case Falls Apart
And then, in May, the bottom fell out. The Klan informant who had charged Brooklyn with exhibiting the floor plan retracted his earlier offer to take a polygraph. O.K. Washington, the black eyewitness from Mims, was refusing to testify in court. The Bureau's main witnesses were back-pedaling, and its primary suspects were nearly on their death beds. In May, Brooklyn underwent surgery for a hemorrhaging stomach. In August, Belvin died of natural causes; Brooklyn followed him to his grave in December. Several other Klan suspects were closely scrutinized, but the Bureau could never find direct evidence linking them to the Moore bombing.
Running out of options, the FBI devised a ploy to convince a federal grand jury to indict local Klansmen for perjury, hoping that once they were brought before a federal grand jury, one of them might crack on the Moore case. In March 1953, a federal grand jury in Miami, after hearing testimony on the Moore case and other Florida bombings, issued a blistering 12-page presentment, describing the Klan as a "cancerous growth" and listing nineteen separate violent acts-"a catalogue of terror that seems incredible"-between 1943 and 1951.
In June, the grand jury returned indictments against seven Orlando klansmen, but the federal judge trying the case eventually dismissed all charges, ruling that there was no federal jurisdiction in any of these incidents (murder and flogging were state crimes, not federal), so it was irrelevant whether the Klansmen had lied to agents about their involvement.
The FBI case was dead. It was officially closed in August, 1955.