Willie James Howard Lynching
On January 2, 1944 15-year-old Willie James Howard was taken to the Suwannee River by the father of a young girl to whom he had sent a Christmas card. Willie James' body was removed from the river the following day.
There are two accounts of what happened on the banks of the Suwannee that day: that of former state legislator Phil Goff, the father of the young girl, and that of James and Lula Howard, the parents of Willie James.
The lynching was brought to the attention of the NAACP by an attorney visiting Live Oak over the Christmas holidays. Thurgood Marshall quickly demanded that Governor Spessard Holland call for a full investigation in the case. Holland forwarded Phil Goff's sworn statement to Marshall and said the matter would be brought before a Grand Jury, but he warned Marshall of the "particular difficulties involved where there will be testimony of three white men and probably the girl against the testimony of one Negro man." [Read Goff's statement and Holland's letter]
When Harry T. Moore heard about the lynching he immediately took action. He sent his own letter to the NAACP expressing his special interest in the case: he grew up down the road from Live Oak and was a former classmate of Lula Howard.
Frustrated by the failure of his past attempts to get state officials to pursue lynching cases he decided to conduct his own investigation. He went to Orlando, where the Howards had fled following the funeral of their son, and took sworn statements from James and Lula Howard [Read Lula Howard's affidavit]. He sent these statements to Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and in an accompanying letter strongly encouraged bypassing the state and pursuing a federal investigation.
Despite these efforts, the Live Oak grand jury failed to return an indictment. This came as no surprise to Moore. He continued to press the NAACP for a federal investigation. [Moore letter to Marshall]. The Justice Department, citing lack of jurisdiction, declined to intervene.
As late as 1947, Moore was still seeking a course of action. He again wrote Thurgood Marshall this time about a Carolina detective agency that offered to re-open the investigation. But Marshall was unwilling to commit further NAACP funding for the investigation.
So the Willie James Howard investigation came to an end, but Harry Moore continued his efforts to expose those who engaged in or condoned lynching. He investigated cases, took affidavits, wrote letters and called for the resignation and punishment of law enforcement officers. And some believe it was this constant pushing of the boundaries, particularly in the highly publicized Groveland case, that would lead to his murder.