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.
It was not an atmosphere conducive to swift justice. William Rayburn, the Etowah County prosecutor handling the Moore case, predicted privately to FBI officials that, given the local mood, he doubted a grand jury would indict Simpson--even if he signed a confession. Rayburn was right: In September 1963, five months after Moore’s murder, an Etowah County grand jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Simpson.
Sometimes justice does reach back. On May 22 of this year, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, the last of four former Klansmen suspected of blowing up the 16th Street Church, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison one year after fellow Klansman Tommy Blanton was convicted for his role. Byron De La Beckwith, Evers’ murderer, was convicted in 1994, three decades after that killing, and was sentenced to life in a Mississippi prison, where he died last year.
Emboldened by those successes, prosecutors have dusted off at least 11 civil rights era cases in the South, hoping to bring fresh charges. But countless other killings, including Moore’s, have simply faded into history. As time passes and suspects and witnesses die, resolution becomes less likely. Simpson went to his grave four years ago without ever publicly discussing the killing, or his arrest. His wife and children maintain his silence.
Moore’s widow, remarried 32 years ago to a quarryman and stone artist, lives on a 288-acre spread in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Mary Moore Birchard still has questions about what happened on that dark road in northeast Alabama, about why the grand jury decided not to indict Simpson despite eyewitness accounts placing a car like his at the scene, ballistics tests that found the killer’s rifle was the same make and model as Simpson’s, and Simpson’s refusal to tell investigators what he had done after 4 p.m. on that cloudy spring day.
“It’s always been my prayer that I would know who killed him before I die,” Mary says.
There’s more at stake than a widow’s desire for certainty. Moore’s murder remains part of the nation’s unfinished business, a stain that can only be rinsed out with the truth, even if the guilty are beyond reach.
Bill Moore cut an odd, solitary figure as he strolled along Highway 11. Standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighing 205 pounds, his imposing size was undercut by a gentle, wry smile. He wore a top coat, usually unzipped, and after the first day walked mostly in his socks because of blisters caused by his shoes. He pulled a small two-wheel shopping cart behind him, holding a change of clothes, some pamphlets and a diary he was keeping of the trip.
Moore’s plan was to be a human lightning rod. If you’re going to protest, he reasoned, there was little sense in doing it inconspicuously. So he made a large sandwich board sign and slipped it over his coat. The front read in large block letters: “End Segregation in America,” and, in smaller letters, “Black or White Eat at Joe’s.” On the back it read: “Equal Rights for All” above “Mississippi or Bust.” His cart bore the sign: “Wanted: Jesus Christ, Agitator, carpenter by trade, revolutionary, consorter with criminals and prostitutes.”
Either set of messages was likely to inflame passions along his planned southwesterly route from Chattanooga, Tenn., through a corner of Georgia into Alabama, then across the state into Mississippi. The route began in the Bible Belt and moved into the Black Belt, the rich, fertile area across the middle lowlands of Alabama where whites were a minority and the Klan particularly active. “This could be something big, for which my whole life has been a sort of preparation,” Moore said in a letter to his wife. “I don’t intend to back out now . . . . I would not be surprised if I were beaten & arrested more than once . . . . So I’m planning as best I can for any eventuality.”
By that point, protest was a way of life for Moore. He’d grown up in Binghamton, N.Y., and after serving with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II, used the GI Bill to attend a series of colleges in the U.S. and Europe. In early 1953, increasingly erratic behavior led his family to commit him to a Binghamton mental institution, where he underwent treatment (including electroshock therapy) for paranoid schizophrenia. He emerged in August 1954 with a manuscript that he self-published as “The Mind in Chains,” a book little noted at the time. It was written with a subtle, self-deprecating sense of humor, capturing Moore’s deep outrage over injustice and his belief that individual actions can lead to broad change.
Moore held a series of jobs, including that of mailman, while working on the side to organize a support group for fellow former mental patients and marching for peace and against atomic weapons testing. The day after Moore’s murder, Tom Cawley, a columnist for the Binghamton Press, wrote that Moore was considered a bit of a local loony, always protesting something and firing off letters to the editor. “It all seemed so futile--a post office worker trying to save the world, single-handed.”
Moore didn’t see his efforts as futile. He thought he could help end segregation, a cause that consumed him after he read books on lynchings and the brutal conditions in which Southern blacks were forced to live. Mary says he was particularly incensed by the beatings of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Ala., in 1961, and the burning of their buses. By this time Moore was a mailman; he liked being able to rush through his route in the morning and then agitate in the afternoon.
In November 1962, Moore arranged a transfer from Binghamton to Baltimore to be closer to the action; his wife and stepchildren would follow after school let out. Within weeks, Moore decided to use what he called his “professional skills” as a mailman to protest segregation, and he started planning his walk across the South. The quest was both political and personal: Moore’s family had roots in the South, and he felt that gave him an added responsibility to make a stand. He arranged to take two weeks’ vacation and on April 21 stepped off a bus in Chattanooga.
Moore’s log notes that he slept the first night on an old bus abandoned alongside a Georgia road. The second night, he rented a motel room in Fort Payne, Ala. Moore’s log also notes encounters with whites who did not rain hatred on him, like the woman who gave him a free milkshake after he told her what he was up to, and the two white youths who offered him a ride, not quite grasping that he intended to walk the whole way. But in some places restrooms were closed to him, and a few businesses refused to serve him once they saw his signs. Some people, including police who asked him to abandon his walk, warned Moore that he likely would be killed in Birmingham; others guessed he’d survive as far as Mississippi. Moore shrugged them off, as he did the mostly young Southern voices that dripped venom from passing cars: “Nigger lover! Why don’t you go back up north where you belong!”
Floyd Simpson, a quiet, slightly built high school dropout, was a stranger in his hometown of Fort Payne, a small Alabama city along Route 11 northeast of Etowah County. “He could be in a crowd of three and you wouldn’t notice him,” said John Chambers, an amateur Fort Payne historian who knew Simpson. The former mayor, Fred Purdy, was about the same age as Simpson, born in 1922, and couldn’t recall ever meeting Simpson as a kid. He first heard of him when he was arrested in connection with Moore’s murder. Even the minister who lived next to Simpson’s parents, and who buried Simpson four years ago, only knew him to say hello.
One of the few people who knew Simpson well was George Killian, a gregarious long-distance truck driver who still lives four miles southwest of Fort Payne in Collbran, a crossroads hamlet on Highway 11 where most of the mailboxes carry the name Killian. George Killian was younger than Simpson by a decade, but by the time the early ‘60s came around, Killian was the leader of the Fort Payne Klavern of the Klan to which Simpson belonged.
These days, Killian claims to be a changed man. Rangy with white hair, he stretches out in a recliner in a back room of his neatly kept modular home and mutes a game show on the television set. Two hunting rifles--loaded, he points out--lean against a doorjamb. A military 50-caliber rifle stands on a bipod on the floor in front of the TV, a gun-lover’s art display.
Killian freely admits his Klan connections in the ‘60s. “We were all segregationists, but not the kind that would go out and murder somebody,” he says. As a born-again Baptist, Killian belongs to what he describes as the integrated Gravel Hill Baptist Church, and said he freely accepts African Americans as his equal. But Killian’s conversion doesn’t extend to violating the infamous Klan vow of silence, and he refuses to discuss Simpson’s role in the Klan. He acknowledges that his friend had been a member only after being told that FBI files listed Simpson’s rank as “klokan,” or investigator, and detailed meetings that Simpson had attended. “Notice that you told me, I didn’t tell you,” Killian says.
Killian doesn’t believe Simpson was behind the killing, and he has his own theory that a stranger followed Moore into the Fort Payne area. “There’s no way I could believe Floyd Simpson would be capable of that,” Killian says. “He was a quiet-like fella. He didn’t express a lot of opinions on things. If he had an opinion, he kept it mostly to himself.
“I never saw a change in Floyd” after the killing, Killian adds.
Simpson held a series of jobs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He worked in one of Fort Payne’s hosiery mills, was a carpenter’s helper and pumped gas at a local garage. He regularly attended Klan meetings, according to FBI files that describe him as a lifetime member. Though the Moore murder was the only violent incident in which he was suspected of being involved, FBI agents questioned Simpson in 1965 about dynamite bombs found in Birmingham. “Simpson stated he had no information concerning these bombs . . . and if he would have information, he is doubtful he would advise the FBI,” reads a statement in the file.
In the spring of 1963, Simpson was running a small country grocery store in Collbran, another stop on Moore’s path to Birmingham. The morning Moore walked into the store looking to buy a snack, Simpson was working the register. George Killian was there, too, with his father, Jack, and at least two other people. The conversation was congenial, Killian recalls.
“We asked him, ‘Why not walk for the American Indians?’ He said, ‘They’re not as bad off as the black folks are.’ ” Killian said he left later that day to make a delivery and was out of town when the killing occurred.
According to police and witness accounts, Simpson was agitated by Moore’s beliefs, including his sign about Christ consorting with prostitutes. Later in the day, Simpson drove Gad Killian, George’s uncle and the owner of the store Simpson ran, to catch up with Moore. The elder Killian wanted to talk to this strange man from the north.
“It was odd, him walking like that, and I wanted to see him,” says Gad Killian, who is now 83. Simpson and Killian caught up with Moore and talked with him for a few minutes before driving back to the Collbran store, Gad Killian says. “I don’t know anything about what happened. And neither does Floyd. He was right there in that [shop] window around the time it happened. My nephew was driving by and waved at him and he waved back. Now how could he have been down there?”
Both Killians referred to that passing wave as an ironclad alibi for Simpson, though it doesn’t show up in the prosecutor’s files. What does show up is Simpson’s refusal to discuss what he did once he and Gad Simpson returned to Collbran.
Jim Hedgspeth’s office anchors a ground floor corner of Etowah County’s new criminal justice center, an airy glass and steel building at the northern edge of downtown Gadsden, the county seat. The room, with its indirect ceiling lights, thick curtains and shelves of books, is conducive to talking, and Hedgspeth does, reeling through historic elements of Alabama politics and moments from his own life.
Technically, the Moore case remains open, though pragmatically it ended when the grand jury decided not to indict. “There is a difference between knowing who did something and proving it,” Hedgspeth says. He flips through the file, mostly carbon copies on onion-skin paper. There are ballistics reports that conclude the two bullets that killed Moore were fired from a rifle like Simpson’s .22-caliber automatic, but the bullets were too badly damaged for an exact match. The file also holds a letter from Rayburn, one of Hedgspeth’s predecessors, to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover seeking federal lab help in examining the bullets; an investigators’ narrative and a list of witnesses called before the grand jury. Most of the witnesses were police officers and lab workers, the men who found the body and the woman who served Moore his last meal in Keener, a short distance from the killing scene.
Three Gadsden journalists also were subpoenaed to testify. They had driven out along Highway 11 an hour before the killing, responding to anonymous calls to their offices that they might “find something newsworthy.” The reporters saw an early ‘50s black Buick like Simpson’s parked near where Moore would be killed, with a heavyset man behind the wheel. Simpson was slightly built, and in a later lineup the reporters picked out a different man, who passed a subsequent lie detector test that investigators said cleared him of involvement. Another witness said she saw a similar car with a license plate beginning with “28"--the designation for Dekalb County, where Simpson lived--turn around in her driveway near the murder scene, but she couldn’t see the driver. And yet another witness reported seeing a man he couldn’t identify walking toward a black car near the spot about the time of the killing.
The official investigation report concludes that Moore was likely killed by someone firing a .22- caliber rifle from inside a car about 10 feet away. The first bullet struck Moore just above the left eyebrow, passed through his brain and lodged against the back of his skull, killing him instantly. The second bullet, apparently fired as Moore fell backward from the impact of the first, struck him in the left side of the neck, then moved upward through the lower part of his skull and emerged just above the left ear. Improbably, the medical examiner found the bullet in Moore’s shirt pocket, as though the dead man had stashed it away for safekeeping.
Mary Moore was sleeping in her house-trailer outside Binghamton, N.Y., when the phone rang. Late-night calls rarely bear good news, and when the man on the other end of the line identified himself as a coroner in Gadsden, Ala., Mary felt weak and panicky. The man asked a lot of questions about what Moore was doing in Alabama while refusing to tell her why he was asking. Finally, he asked her to summon a neighbor--any neighbor-- to the phone. “Right then I knew something had really gone bad,” she recalls. “Pastor Drewry lived in the trailer next door so I ran over in my nightgown and banged on his door and said, ‘There’s a man on the phone that wants to talk to you.’ ”
After a short conversation with the coroner, Drewry told Mary the obvious. “You don’t want to hear it. You don’t want to believe it,” she says. “It was like my head was just falling backward, even though I was sitting on the couch.” Mary’s life had not been easy, and it was about to get exponentially worse. She married her first husband when she was young to get away from her father, who beat her and a brother. Her husband, with whom she had three children, was also abusive. “It was out of the frying pan into the fire.” She turned for help to Moore, whom she met during his regular visits to read to Mary’s blind neighbor. Moore tried to talk Mary’s husband into changing his ways. When that failed, he helped Mary and the children move out. A year later, they married.
Mary sympathized with Moore’s politics, but she was too busy working at a Binghamton electronics assembly line and raising her three children to get involved. After Moore was murdered, she attended one rally, driven by a desire to resume her husband’s work. “He said that if we all worked harder we could make this world a better place,” Mary says. Then the phone calls started. Mary should be in the same place as her dead husband, a voice would say. Or, I know where your children are. “It was a very frightening time,” Mary says. “Things were just too hot.” Even her factory co-workers were suddenly distant, avoiding her at lunch. More than 100 people worked at the plant, but a collection for the family yielded only $20. Mary retreated into herself.
“I didn’t talk to anybody,” she says. “I just wasn’t nice anymore. It was probably a year and a half before I laughed or smiled.”
Mary sits in a ground-floor room with spring sunshine streaming through double doors opening to the backyard. The room overlooks a 20-acre pond her current husband, Courtland Birchard, made in the ‘50s by damming up spring-fed marshland on his 288-acre share of family land about 20 miles southwest of Binghamton. The couple met about a year after Moore was killed. It was one of those chance encounters in which romance was the last thing anyone expected. Mary was looking for some slag rock to fill in a low spot outside her trailer and someone told her Birchard was the guy she needed. She looked him up, one thing led to another, and in 1965 the couple married.
Birchard sits quietly on a separate couch as Mary talks. Outside, bees dance around flowers in the backyard. A diving osprey makes a spectacular splash, then flies off with one of the trout the couple stock in their pond. Upstairs is a small showroom where they sell Birchard’s stone engravings of birds and flags and other icons of rural America.
“I sympathize with those 9-11 people,” Mary says, words tumbling over tears. “They talk about closure like it’s a book, but it’s not true. It can settle and you can go on, but it’s always there.”
In the days after Moore’s murder, Mary’s family provided little solace. Her father, following the lead of an uncle, was a devoted Klan member. Mary’s mother shared her husband’s beliefs but rejected them during that violent summer of ’63. It wasn’t the killing of her daughter’s husband, though, that led to a change of heart. “My mother changed when she saw the children and the dogs,” Mary says. “She said, ‘That’s not right.’ ”
Seared into Mary’s memory is the first time she stepped into the family house in the days after Bill Moore was murdered. Her father turned to her with a sneer and said, “Well, I guess they showed him.”
It seems likely that there are people still alive who know what happened on that rural Alabama road. While the decision by the grand jury to not indict Simpson was interpreted as just another example of Southern injustice, the case against him had problems. It is plausible that Simpson simply offered up his car and his rifle to the killer.
People know. Getting them to tell is the difficult part. Murder has no statute of limitations, and unless the killer is dead, the truth can still hurt.
If there’s anyone who might be able to say what Floyd Simpson was doing on that April night in 1963, it’s his wife, Lucille, who still lives in the single-story wood-frame house in Fort Payne that they bought in 1970 when he worked maintenance for the Dekalb Baptist Hospital. It’s a modest house, as are the others in this working-class neighborhood. An American flag hangs inside the front storm door facing the Mount Carmel Baptist Church across the street, where Lucille attends Sunday services. The window curtains are drawn and it looks like no one is home, but the inside door opens slowly before the first footfall clunks on the wooden steps. A short, elderly woman with unnaturally tight curls over faded blue eyes looks out, her face in a gentle half-smile of polite expectation as she pushes open the storm door.
Yes, she answers, she is Lucille Simpson. As soon as William Moore’s name is mentioned, the smile vanishes and she shakes her head. “No, no comment,” she says. “I don’t want to.” She turns down a business card offered in case she changes her mind, in case she decides to talk about what it was like for her husband to live half his life in a town where many people his age believe he got away with murder. “No,” she says. “No, I won’t change my mind.” Neither will the children. “No,” she says, with the steel of a matriarch accustomed to being obeyed, “I wouldn’t let them.”
A slender, black-haired man in his early 30s emerges from around the side of the house, followed by a young boy. They toss a white ball beneath a leafless tree, the sky heavy with ragged gray clouds that shroud the hilltops. The boy is laughing and jumping. The man is impassive, eyeing the conversation on the porch. Lucille Simpson closes the storm door, and there’s nothing left to do but leave.
The steps are taken carefully, then the sidewalk. Silent glances are exchanged with the man in the yard, who reacts stonily to a nod of the head. The sound of the car door closing echoes through the quiet neighborhood. After a few moments, yet another car inches onto an Alabama road and drives off. Two sets of eyes watch: the young man on the lawn and the old woman behind the door. It’s dusk, and the shaded backyard is already lost to the coming darkness.