Issue #155: Registering 100,000 Black Voters in 1940s Jim Crow Florida
The effort of Harry and Harriette Moore
On February 7th, Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates gathered at the Florida capital to push for passing of a new Voting Rights Act. The Bill, SB1522 or HB1035, would aim to repeal several of voter suppression bills the GOP has pushed in recent years, as well as proposing several new reforms. These include…..
Making vote-by-mail request permanent
Set up automatic registration via the DMV
Expands language access on ballots
Establishes rules governing local redistricting to aid minority representation
The proposed legislation also carries a special title - The “Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Florida Voting Rights Act.” The bill is in honor of Harry Moore and Harriette Moore, a married couple that were both NAACP leaders and major voting rights advocates in Florida. The couple are credited with registered tens of thousands of African-Americans voters in the 1940s
The story of the Moore’s is critical for understanding the challenge of voting rights in Jim Crow Florida. In honor of them, I want to take a look at the effects of the registration efforts and how they set the stage for further efforts to come.
Florida’s Jim Crow Status
I have covered Florida’s move into Jim Crow in the past. However, I will offer a brief summary here. A fuller look at the post-Civil War era of Florida voting rights can be read here.
Like many states, Florida post Civil War saw an initial burst in black political power. The late 1860s in Florida saw this first hand, as the state’s large black population (around 40% black at the time) made up a majority of registered voters. Thanks to mass registration efforts and the barring of ex-confederates from voting, the 1867 Constitutional Convention election had a voter roll that was 58% black.
However, the constitutional convention instantly saw efforts by white carpetbagger Republicans to short circuit black political power. They would use violence and tricks to force the convention to pass a “moderate” constitution that created a redistricting system that would limit black voting power by guaranteeing rural white counties an outside influence in how seats were allocated. White Republican Harrison Reed, who would be elected Governor in 1868, would quip
“Under our Constitution the Judiciary & State officers will be appointed & the apportionment will prevent a negro legislature.”
The Republicans only held Florida until 1876, when Democrats took control in an election filled with plenty of violence and fraud. In the coming years, a new convention would be called, with delegate elections held under violent intimidation of black voters. A Jim Crow Constitution would pass in 1886 and several suppression laws would be passed to destroy black voting; including poll taxes and whites-only primaries.
The poll tax was especially damaging to voter participation. It effectively ended the Republican Party and black voting in the state. For the next several decades, Florida would be a one-party state, with Democratic Primaries all that mattered. The poll tax would keep poor voters from casting ballots. That poll tax would be repealed in 1941, but the whites-only primary kept the state in white democratic control.
This was the environment Harry and Harriette grew up in.
The Efforts of Harry and Harriette Moore
Both Harry and Harriette grew up in the stifling world of Jim Crow Florida. Harry grew up in Jacksonville, which had a sizeable and well-connected urban black community. He would move to Brevard County for a teaching job, and meet Harriette, a former teacher and then insurance adjuster. They would marry in 1926 and in 1934 Harry founded the Brevard Chapter of the NAACP. Harry, who would be the public face of efforts, began to work on building coalitions for black equality and rights.
The 1930s and 1940s saw the Moore’s increase their political activities. Harry, who served as principle for Titusville’s all-black school, saw the lack of “equal” in the “separate but equal” system of segregation. The lack of funding or support for the school was part of Harry’s years-long pushes for equal pay for black educators and institutions. The NAACP under Moore would also investigate lynching’s and false criminal claims against black individuals. Harry would travel the state organizing local NAACP chapters. In 1941, he was made President of the Florida NAACP.
In 1944, in Smith v Allwright, the US Supreme Court struck down the whites-only primary system in Texas. The next year, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that the whites-only primary was gone in Florida as well. As a result, black voters in Florida now had a chance to flex their muscle in the lone contest that mattered at the time - the Democratic Primary. Harry founded and became President of Progressive Voters League of Florida, which would work with the NAACP on registering black voters in Florida.
Registration and Political Power
In the 1940s, Florida’s system of depriving black voting power was not as forceful as neighboring Alabama, Mississippi, or other deep south states. However, this didn’t mean the threat of violence did not exist. However, this was broadly a county-by-county dynamic vs some states were no area was safe. Statewide, the ending of whites-only primaries did give the avenue for black registration efforts.
It is important to look at the state of things first. Reports indicate that in 1940, only 4% of the state’s black population was registered. Unfortunately I do not have the raw data before me, as the state’s online archives start at 1945, so this will be my starting off point for analyzing the registration effects.
If 1940 saw just 4% black registration, than the period up to 1945 saw some movement on these efforts by The Moores and other NAACP leaders. By 1945, 14% of the black population was registered.
Several areas were well under 5%, with just two already over 50%. While very low, this was still miles above what the rest of the south looked like. It should perhaps be no surprise that the areas with the lowest registration rate were the North Florida panhandle. If any region closely marked the racial politics of the deep south, it was many of these counties. Some of these would be the most fierce in resisting the efforts of Harry Moore.
Here was the full breakdown of voter registration in 1945.
In 1945, black voters were split between the two parties. Democrats made up 94% of the total voters in the state, with commanding majorities in every county. However, among black voters, Democrats made up jut 63%.
In Moore’s home of Brevard, there were no black democrats. For Moore and many black leaders, neither party was appealing. Republicans were the party of Lincoln, but had sold out black voters after the Civil War. Democrats represented the suppression of Jim Crow, but nationwide there were changing tides. The growing liberal faction of the Democratic Party would give rise to civil rights champions leaders like Hubert Humphry; who would clash with segregationists at the 1948 Convention. Harry Truman’s moves on civil rights in the army and government would lead to a Dixiecrat split in 1948.
At the end of the day, Florida was dominated by Democrats. As Harry Moore saw, the most logical move was to register with the Democrats, and push issues in the primaries. Moore states plainly at the time
In order to help select these officials, Negroes must vote as Democrats. If we are to reap the full benefits of these opportunities, we must forget our old party affiliations and register to vote in the Democratic Primary. Then when the general election comes, we can vote for the candidate of our choice.
Moore did have to work to dispel any apathy or reservation among black residents, long deprived of voting rights. Moore likewise understood the best outcome at the time was to flex muscle by aiming to elect the most amendable white democrat. In 1948, black voters backing Fuller Warren gave him the margin of victory to win the Democratic runoff for Governor. Warren would subsequently give an audience to Moore and black leaders, opposing Klan activities and questioning the story around the infamous Groveland Four case.
From 1945 to 1950, black registration efforts across the state were monumental. In those five years, 70,000 additional black voters were added to the voter rolls. A vast majority of this was among democrats, with even some black republicans making the strategic decision to switch sides.
Black voters were kept out of the Democratic party in several counties, though. Areas like Jefferson and Hamilton, which had large black populations, would not let their Democratic primaries be “infiltrated.” As the map shows, several counties still had no black voters despite having black residents. I will delve a bit more into some of these counties further in this article. First, lets look at the broad statewide shift.
As the table shows, in just those give years, black political involvement jumped in a major way. All told, the efforts of Harry Moore and the NAACP area credited with registering around 100,000 black voters. This includes folks from pre-1945. The growth of 70,000 in just five years is truly stunning. It was part of the first major effort to give black voters a say in Jim Crow Florida.
By 1950, 31% of the voting-age black residents were registered to vote in Florida.
In 1950, Florida stood out from its Deep South neighbors. Of course, some counties looked a lot more like Alabama or Mississippi than others. Several counties remained at 0, while others hovered around 5%.
HOWEVER, many other rural counties, namely in the southern farmlands, had good rates. The highest registration rate, at 68%, was Okeechobee County; with its fellow farm neighbors in strong figures as well.
County success varied and for sure reflected how much resources could be committed into any area. Of course, the biggest factor was local resistance to these efforts. Lets discuss that now.
Local Resistance to Registration
First, lets look at this county map showing how much the black voter roll increased or decreased from 1945 to 1950. As it lays out, several counties saw well over a 100% increase in their roll, others by even more. Still, some counties saw little gain, and other saw a reduction.
In total, nine counties saw their number of black voters shrink. Others barely rose at all.
Now to control for the fact populations can ebb and flow, I looked at how the Registration rate compared. On this metric, using the 1950 census for the 1950 rate, eight counties saw the rate decrease. Only Gilchrist’s drop in black voters was a direct result of a broader population shrink.
So how do we determine the causes of either delayed registration efforts, or actual reductions? Was it all threats? Was it just a handful of folks falling off the roll? Did a local county not have an organized effort?
By and large, the story is that of racial violence of threats. These occurred across the state, even those with strong voter drives. A Jacksonville Pastor talked about the threats he faced, and being told…..
"You won't go to jail, but you will be killed! This is Florida. We don't allow n-----s to vote here in Democratic primaries." (source)
Well past the 1940s, several North Florida counties would violently suppress registration efforts. In a handful, it would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to allow ANY registration.
I want to take a look at a few counties of note.
So when looking at each county in this table, what is the story? Some are obvious. The bottom counties all notoriously suppressed registration of black voters however they could. Counties outside the panhandle, like Collier or Flagler, still stand out for their lack of registration. Counties like Jefferson or Hamilton pushed their black voters toward the Republican side, likely via threats about staying out of their primaries. Places like Franklin, Charlotte, and Bradford saw their registration drop BUT the remaining were more Democratic.
In most instances, the lack of registration or decline is due to threats. The opening of the primary to all voters meant the law was replaced with force in areas where the white leaders did not want black voter participation. Newspaper coverage, this specifically being from the mid 1950s, shows the threats were real.
Some stories are well documented, others are not. Digging around did not immediately answer for me why a county like Charlotte saw a drop or why Collier was so low. Places like Liberty have well-documented violent threats, while Gadsden has many reports of tricks and economic warnings to keep black people from registering.
The major increases in registration in some counties but not others reflect that in some parts of the state, it was safer to not get involved in the political process.
Groveland Four & A Klan Bombing
Sadly, the story of Harry and Harriette Moore ends the way it did for so many other civil rights leaders, in tragedy. In 1951, both Moores would be killed by a bomb planted in their house by the Ku Klux Klan. The bombing took place after Moore became a major figure in the Groveland Four case.
The case, which saw four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman. Like so many cases from the time, the guilt as a forgone conclusion. In the investigation, Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall worked to fabricate evidence. His posse lynched defendant Ernest Thomas as he was being pursued. At trial, the remaining three men were found guilty. Only Charles Greenlee was not sentenced to death because he was a minor. Meanwhile, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd appealed their death sentences with the help of the NAACP. The US Supreme Court ended up vacating the cases and ordered a new trial.
Well guess what happened next? As Sheriff McCall transported Irvin and Shepherd he claims they “jumped him” when he stopped to fix a flat tire. McCall was “forced” to shoot both men. Shepherd was killed instantly but Irvin survived and insisted it was a staged lynching. Of course an all-white panel cleared McCall, who escaped justice for obvious murder. McCall would never change his story and would be a longtime fighter of integration. Irvin would eventually be found guilty at a new trial but Governor Collins would eventually commute the sentence to life in prison instead of the death penalty.
Through the entire Groveland Four saga, Harry Moore was a vocal critic of the “official story” of the case. He was also openly calling for then-Governor Warren to remove McCall as Lake Sheriff. Then, on Christmas night in 1951, the bomb planted in his house went off. Harry was killed instantly while Harriette survived for 9 days. Investigations decades later would show ties to the KKK for the bombing.
The Moores dedicated heir lives for the fight for equality. Unfortunately for them and many others, the white leaders in their area were willing to use violence to halt these efforts.
Path to the Voting Rights Act
The push for equality and ballot access would not die with The Moores. It would continue in the 1950s in Florida. By 1960, 183,000 black voters would be on the rolls. Then, over the course of the following decade, the roll would shoot up to 300,000!
I have actually written about the 1960s voter registration pushes. This covers not only efforts by the NAACP in 1963 and 1964, but the effect the Voting Rights Act had in places like Liberty; which resisted to the very end. Read that story here
The path for equal ballot access continues to this day. It is important right now, however, to remember the important figures who kicked started the process all those decades ago.