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Activist Is Harlem's 'Queen Mother' : Civil rights: Inspired by Marcus Garvey, Audley Moore has struggled to lift up African Americans.

August 20, 1995|JERRY MARKON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — The woman known as "Queen Mother" sits in a wheelchair, staring blankly out the window of a nursing home on the edge of Harlem.

It seems, on this morning, that her 97 years have caught up with Audley (Queen Mother) Moore. Her memory is as irregular as the flecks of black in her long gray hair. She has difficulty swallowing her medicine.

But mention the quote from Nelson Mandela--"The struggle is my life"--on her wall, and the lifelong political activist slowly turns her head. Point out the framed photo of Marcus Garvey and the green, black and red African liberation flag, and she focuses her light brown eyes.

In a slow, hoarse voice, she tells of her 75 years in "the struggle." It's a tale of lynching and rape in the rural South, of street preaching in Harlem, of organizing black workers, fighting for prisoners and even being a Communist.

Though she's virtually unknown to most whites, Moore is a hero in Harlem and a familiar figure to historians. She has become the elder, elder stateswoman of black nationalism.

"Queen Mother Moore is a legend. Everyone knows her. Every one salutes her for the history she is involved in," says Vivian Jones, district administrator for Harlem Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).

At 97, Moore has outlasted a stroke, two mastectomies and a broken hip. She is generally healthy and still loves the beans and rice and collard greens of her youth, said Delois Blakely, a Harlem activist who takes care of her.

And Moore is still active, appearing at events ranging from Mike Tyson's homecoming to the recent meeting between Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow.

As Blakely pushes her wheelchair, Moore is introduced to loud ovations, waving and smiling. She occasionally says a few words.

Before age slowed her, she was notably combative.

"In her younger days, she could be very rough on people who didn't believe like she did," said Percy Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president and longtime civil rights activist. He describes Moore as "a great lady."

Moore's aggressiveness was forged by violence: Her grandmother was raped by a white man and her grandfather was lynched.

According to "Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia," Moore was born in New Iberia, La., on July 27, 1898. Both parents died by the time Moore was in the fourth grade, so she dropped out of school and by age 15 became a hairdresser.

A few years later, Moore's life changed when she heard a speech in New Orleans by Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant known as the "Black Moses" who founded a back-to-Africa movement.

The crowd was armed because Garvey had been arrested the night before. Moore brought two guns, one in her bosom, the other in her pocketbook.

"When Garvey started to speak, the police department tried to stop him and the people said, 'Speak, Garvey, speak!' " Moore remembers.

Inspired by Garvey's talk of African culture and pride, Moore moved to Harlem and became a leader of his Universal Negro Improvement Assn. Garvey's movement collapsed when he was deported in 1927 after serving two years in prison for mail fraud.

But Moore's path was set. A powerful speaker and organizer, she linked herself over the next 60 years to causes that ranged the political spectrum--always working outside the civil rights mainstream.

Moore joined the Communist Party in 1933, recalling today that "the Communists were the only ones interested in my revolutionary rights." She ran as a Communist for New York's state Assembly in 1938 but left the party in 1950. She later became a Republican, then a Democrat.

At various times, Moore organized domestic workers in New York City, fought evictions of black tenants and agitated for black political representation, prisoner rights and integrating the armed forces.

Jailed at least three times, she even organized her fellow inmates.

In the 1960s, Moore formed a committee to demand federal reparations for blacks as compensation for slavery, her primary issue for the last 30 years.

Taking the first of many trips to Africa in 1972, Moore was given the honorary title of queen mother of a tribe in Ghana. It became her informal name in the United States.

Howard Dodson, head of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, says Moore's career represents "a link between the best elements of the nationalists and radical left political traditions in Harlem over the past five, six decades."

"At an advanced age, she's still in the struggle. That means a lot to people," he added.

And Moore plans to hang around awhile longer. She hopes to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing next month and visit Africa again next year, says Blakely.

"I feel good. I feel young. My work isn't complete," says Moore, whose smooth cheeks make her look younger than her age.

Asked how she wants to be remembered, she laughs.

"I want to live forever."

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