Explosive Matters

Harry T. Moore celebrated Christmas and his wedding anniversary on the same day in 1951. Retiring to bed at 10:30, he and his family had their sleep interrupted by a bomb that shattered the house and ultimately killed Harry and his wife Harriette. What was Harry’s offense? Had he whistled at a white woman? Did he have the temerity to work on his own account rather than toiling in the orange groves? Was he just at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Apparently, Harry’s death came because he had angered the wrong people by insisting on justice for Florida’s African-American citizens. Probably the most aggressive thing the man did was write letters to the governor as the state head of the NAACP.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King, and this morning’s installment involved the events described above. In fact, I haven’t even gotten as far as Harriette’s death but felt compelled to write these things.

As a child of the 1960s, someone who has lived through any number of After-School Specials, documentaries, and dramas about the Civil Rights Movement, I know a lot of these stories. I’ve heard about Rosa Parks and the 16th Street Baptist Church girls. I’ve seen the events portrayed in newsreel footage and dramatized.

So why is this book making me feel so much more strongly? Why am I more outraged at this account of 70-year-old injustices than I have, I think, ever been before? At least once a year, I teach Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” the first chapter in Invisible Man, and I am struck by the masterful way that Ellison presents the complexities of segregated life and his psychological response to it. I think that’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but, despite its power, I’ve never had it bother me as much as King’s book. Why?

Something has changed, and it clearly isn’t the events. Although the “Groveland Boys” case is not one I knew previously, it’s not remarkably different from many others I do know. So what has changed? There are perhaps two reasons for my different response.

First, the writer might have changed. Gilbert King might just be that good of a writer. He did win a Pulitzer Prize after all. Maybe he  has just reached into my mind and touched all the right synapses to stir my heart like these things never have. (Should I be bothered that it took a white man’s account to stir me, a white man?) Frankly, I don’t think that’s the explanation.

Second, the reader has changed. I’d like to think that I have been a caring and empathetic person for all of my adult life. I’d like to think that I never would have taken the ordeals faced by people like Moore lightly. In reality, I’m pretty sure that I can think those things, but I’m not sure that I’ve always felt them as deeply as I should.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to expand his hearers’ vision of who their neighbors were. Like that expert in the Law, I might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps my neighbor is simply the person whose suffering I cannot witness without being moved. Perhaps my neighbor is Harry T. Moore.