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A Stain In Alabama

William Moore Was An Ardent Supporter Of Civil Rights, A Cause He Would Die For. Forty Years Later, His Murder Remains Unsolved.

October 27, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | Scott Martelle is a Times staff writer. His last story for the magazine was a piece on Isabel Emrich, included in last year's ''Growing Up in L.A.'' issue.

Willis Elrod's car hurtled through darkness along U.S. Highway 11, a rural two-lane road bisecting old miseries and fresh hatreds in northeast Alabama. A little before 9 p.m., Elrod passed through Keener, a crossroads collection of houses and a small country store in Etowah County, and then he was back out in open country heading southwest for Birmingham and home. About four miles later, on a stretch of highway lined by dairy farms and small stands of trees, Elrod spotted the motionless form of a man lying on the left side of the road, at the outer reach of his headlights. He turned around and drove back the way he had come, scanning the roadside until he found the spot again.

''I was concerned, curious, whatever,'' Elrod says as he recalls that long-ago night in the spring of 1963. ''I went back to see if I could do anything.''

The man was lying face-down, his head turned to the side and the shoeless feet pointing into a picnic turnout beneath a sweeping shade tree. Elrod circled his car slowly around the man, gravel crunching beneath his tires as he tried to make out details in the darkness. Dead, he concluded. Probably a hit-and-run.

Elrod inched back onto Highway 11 and drove 100 yards to a farmhouse, where he interrupted Harry Sizemore in the midst of his family's Tuesday ritual of watching ''The Red Skelton Show.''

Elrod asked Sizemore to call authorities. ''Then he and I went back down to where the body was.''

At the turnout, Sizemore leaned forward as he played a flashlight over the corpse, expecting it to be crushed and mangled from the impact of a car. Instead, there was a small neat hole above the left eyebrow, a second ragged hole on the left side of the throat, and a small pool of blood. ''My God,'' Sizemore shouted as he jumped back. ''This man's been shot!''

It took police less than a half-hour to identify the dead man as William L. Moore, a 35-year-old white mailman from Binghamton, N.Y. An ardent civil rights supporter, Moore was in the third day of a quixotic, one-man crusade, walking across the South to hand-deliver a letter demanding that Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett end segregation. Within days, police pinpointed Floyd L. Simpson, 41, a taciturn ''investigator'' for the local Ku Klux Klan, as the likely killer.

Racial tensions had been high in the South for more than a decade as individual challenges to segregation merged into a mass movement of sit-ins, boycotts and marches. Those tensions exploded in the summer of '63, and Moore's murder on April 23 would prove to be just the opening salvo.

It was also a catalyst. James Forman, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time, credits Moore's murder with helping energize the group. After the killing, Forman and other activists launched a campaign to complete Moore's walk. ''Our policy was that we had to respond to murders so the segregationists would know there was going to be a response to violence,'' Forman recalled. ''We thought that would reduce the possibilities of the killing of other people.'' But each walk ran into a wall of Alabama state troopers, who hauled the marchers off to jail.

Separately, rumblings in nearby Birmingham were evolving into full-scale protests, and the nation's attention was quickly drawn away from the Moore murder and those who wanted to finish his walk. Within weeks, the civil rights movement coalesced in Birmingham, and the world was introduced to photographs of Bull Connor and his now-infamous police dogs and fire hoses.

As the summer progressed, the civil rights movement seesawed wildly from invigorating highs to soul-crushing lows. Five days before Moore was killed, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had finished his ''Letter from a Birmingham Jail,'' detailing the moral certitude behind the movement. In August came the March on Washington, capped by King's ''I Have a Dream'' speech. But at least 10 people would die in the struggle that summer, including Medgar Evers, a black NAACP field organizer shot in June in Mississippi. In September, four school girls were killed by a KKK bomb as they primped in a basement ladies room of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. By then, most of the country had forgotten about Moore, and about the Klansman accused of killing him.

Prosecution in the Moore case was bound to be problematic. Despite legions of FBI infiltrators in the '60s, cracking the secrecy of the most violent cadres of the Ku Klux Klan was difficult. In many cases, local law enforcement aided segregationists and looked the other way as Klansmen killed activists, beat pacifists and burned and bombed homes and churches.

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