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Pilgrimage to Jackson

Bill Moore knew where he was headed and why, when he started on his way to deliver a message to the Governor of Mississippi, but he could not have known why he would be murdered.

Fort Payne, Alabama 

The State of Alabama, itching faintly in its conscience and outraged violently in its public relations sense, has charged Floyd Simpson, a grocer, with having murdered William Moore, a pilgrim, on US Highway 11, 28 miles from here, an hour or so after dark. 

Bill Moore had set himself to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., where, as a white man, he would ask Governor Ross Barnett to begin to understand the aspirations of Negroes to “be gracious and give more than is immediately demanded of you.” He planned to cover 40 miles a day pushing his belongings in a supermarket cart fitted with the sign,“Equal Rights for All — Mississippi or Bust.”

He had left Black’s Motel here before seven in the morning on April 23. He must have struggled on a after dark in hopes of maintaining his schedule. His feet were blistered; he had traveled only 28 miles; he had taken off his shoes and was in his stocking feet when he was shot in the head with a .22 rifle.

Except for the blisters, Moore must have enjoyed his days, stopping now and then to answer the questions of passers-by and to write down what they said. These were notes for his book. Most of the words he recorded seemed to him friendly.

Moore’s first obituaries called him a mailman, but he was by conviction a writer. The Mind in Chains, his only published book, came from Exposition Press in 1955. It was a history of the delusion which had led to his commitment to a New York State mental health hospital in Binghamton. Moore’s condition then seems to have been paranoid — not the delusion of being persecuted, but the conviction of being specially blessed, which was the paranoia of evangelical times and with which George Fox, for one, may have built a church.

William Moore remembered the weeks just before his commitment as “the happiest days of my life.” He believed, in his exaltation that every stranger he met had been put there to help him by some mysterious plan of his guardian angel; that he was protected by friends he did not even know.

Moore’s father visited Bill’s psychiatrist at the Binghamton hospital and reported his findings back to the son: “You shave a very keen mind. Dr. List says that there is just one corner of it where the gears do not mesh properly. He says you have ideals which are contrary to normal society.”

He had tried his parents even as a boy because took what they said literally. “When I heard that being a garbage man was one of the least desirable occupations, I thought of being one because someone had to do the job.” He was 11 when he read of the Children’s Crusades and he ran away to go to Jerusalem to fight for Jesus. “Hadn’t I been taught, didn’t Daddy once say, that nothing was foolish or impossible if only I set my mind to it.” The father who paid this occasional obeisance to illusion was the only father Bill Moore heard; his mind did not respond when the same father, home from his grocery, explained: “You think you can go out in the world and do great things. You think you can become a hero. But you can’t. The world is too large. So just try to be average, to be ordinary. Find your place, stay here and be happy.”

But, in high school, Bill Moore found a teacher who assured him that he needed only courage to save the world. His parents told him that the man was crazy and that Bill must see him no more. Bill obeyed, but he had settled on that poor man all the faith that earlier mystics used to feel at the moment of intimacy with God. In 1944, he went into the Marines, against his father’s will; because his teacher had been a Marine. He had fought on Guam. After the war, his teacher died of cancer, and Bill Moore fled to England, then came back to Johns Hopkins for graduate work. There he began to believe that his teacher had shammed death so that he could become a secret adviser of President Eisenhower’s and that he was even now preparing a high place in these councils for his true and faithful pupil. In 1953, that delusion carried Bill Moore to the hospital in Binghamton; he was discharged as cured only because he decided at last that he had been mistaken, his master must be dead, there was no plan.

His cure had one peculiar result. At the time he was declared insane, his politics were devout but orthodox enough; he thought, for example, that MacArthur was the greatest American and that President Truman should have won the Korean War by invading China. When he came out of the hospital, he was of a different mind. Peace and civil rights movements were what engaged him. He toyed with the idea of a “peace walk” to Vietnam, explaining that he had had a Vietnamese friend a decade earlier “who was sympathetic with the Ho Chi Minh movement for independence for that country. He hoped that his countrymen and mine would never have to fight one another. Now it appears that we do. I have lost touch with him, but I am distressed at the thought of his countrymen and mine killing each other.” But he gave up the idea: “I don’t exactly relish the prospect of being made hash of,” and anyway “I suppose it’s futile to try and pass judgment on people or nations.”

Moore married, moved to Baltimore and worked as a substitute postman; the friends he made were other nonviolent activists; he does not seem to have known any of them very well. Then, when he had ten days leave, after Easter, he went South on his pilgrimage.

He wrote down notes of his conversations on US 11 to remind himself of the things which might tell whoever read his book what Southerners are like. He may have softened the occasions when strangers were harsh; he does give the impression that in the main they were agreeable. After his murder, the police took Moore’s diary and used it for clues. Of all the uses Bill Moore might have conceived for his notes, the last would be evidence in a murder case. He began a trip of reconciliation; three days later his record of that trip is most useful as an implement of police vengeance.

He Didn’t Bother Anybody

J.C. Gilbreath, who own’s Black’s Motel, remembered Moore coming for a room a little after ten o’clock his first night in De Kalb County.

“I would have thought him a salesman on vacation. I took him to his room and then I saw the cart. I said you better get a license plate for that and he laughed. Then I saw the signs, but of course I didn’t say anything, because they were his privilege. Next morning I got up and I could just see him far off on the road.”

George Knowles, chief deputy for the De Kalb County sheriff, caught up with Moore later that morning.

“I asked him, ‘Are you tired?’ ‘No. no,’ he said, ‘not too bad.’ I said, ‘If you’ll allow me I think you should take the next bus and go back North. It could get rough for you South of here. He laughed about that so I wished him luck and he went on. 

“In these cases,” Knowles said, “you’d naturally look for something mental. I looked at him very carefully. He had a nice expression, very open. And he didn’t bother anybody; he didn’t seem to have spoken to anyone unless they spoke to him first.”

Moore had finished lunch that last Tuesday and was four miles south of Colbran, a depressed suburb of Fort Payne, when a farmer came across his field to ask him what his signs meant.

Moore answered with a laugh:

“I’m one of those Nigger-lovers you hear about.”

The farmer does not remember that felt any particular affront; but when he went shopping at Floyd Simpson’s grocery in Colbran that afternoon, he thought enough of the apparition to mention it. Floyd Simpson then went down the road in his car to see Moore. There is no record of their conversation, but Simpson came back with the additional intelligence that Moore’s cart also carried a sign which alerted the public to watch out for Jesus Christ, a dangerous criminal at large. 

Moore’s effects have been locked away for evidence; what he called his “Jesus” poster does not seem to have been included in the items Coroner Noble Yocum displayed for the photographers the night of the murder. This omission may have been dictated by respect for Moore’s memory; officers who can discuss a civil rights slogan with complete detachment almost blush to think that a man they judge upper middle class could carry around a “Wanted” poster for Jesus Christ.

Mrs. Charles Cagle, Moore’s aunt, lives in Birmingham, 88 miles from here and she and her husband came to Gadsden to identify the body. Tony Reynolds, an Etowah County deputy, talked to them almost an hour. 

“His aunt said he’d written that he would stop in in Birmingham on his walk and they’d written back to say please not to come. He’d written back saying that he’d see them. They said it was impossible ever to get him mad.”

He lowered his voice; he had come to the worst of the family’s sorrows:

“The thing that upset them most was that sign about Jesus Christ. They were nice Christian people.”

The thing—by now it is generally called the Anti-Christ sign—must certainly be the New Masses cartoon where Art Young drew a thick-bearded Christ as Rebel and labeled it “Wanted—agitator, carpenter by trade, revolutionary, consorter with criminals and prostitutes.” Its point, of course, is that if Jesus were alive today, nice Christians would harry Him.

The Floyd Simpson who confronted this old notion on US Highway 11 was a former textile hand who had been a sergeant in the Army, is the father of five children and husband of a Fort Payne girl who had been slightly his social better. None of these things equipped him for historical and theological speculations. The Anti-Christ sign on Moore’s cart seemed to Simpson an affront where the civil rights signs were only an annoyance. When his landlord, Gaddis Killian, came back home, Simpson told him about the wayfarer.

Gaddis killian is a mailman, and his fellow citizens of Colbran have come to know him as their highest authority on matters in the great world. He seems, to the fleeting eye the only one of them with any sign of nervous energy. That difference has been a terrible pain to him; he so wore himself down with his mail route, his grocery store and his church work that he has been in the hospital with nervous exhaustion twice in the past two years. His neighbors think him kind as well as wise; in Fort Payne the weekend after Bill Moore died, they said: “Gad wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Even so, an old high school mate says, “Gad’s gotten to be a terrible radical lately. You can’t talk to him any more. He just keeps on saying we been sold out to the Communists and the Catholics.”

Killian and Simpson went back down to find Moore and ask him if he were a Christian. Simpson seems only to have listened while Killian and the stranger talked about God. The conversation, like all the others that day, is remembered by the survivors as amiable. “A couple of men...drove up and questioned my political and religious beliefs,” Moore wrote in his diary. “‘Now I know what you are.’” [Presumably Killian’s remarks about Moore.] And one was sure I’d be killed for them.” There is no other record of their talk except this inconclusive one; Mrs. Killian reported that her husband came back to say: “That man fascinates me. I must go back and see him again.” Still she says Gad did not go back, although he kept talking about the incident, and no one can say what shape the mysterious stranger had assumed four hours later when someone somewhere went out and killed him. But, if the police are right, if Floyd Simpson made that trip, the shape was not the one Bill Moore thought he had assumed when he began his walk. He had accepted the chance of death; but he and everyone else thought he would be killed for carrying a civil rights sign through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Instead, the police believe, he was killed for carrying a sign which appeared to defame the Lord Jesus.

“Gad Said He’s in Bed...” 

Alabama’s Governor George Wallace moved to find Moore’s murderer with all the passion of a man sensitive to his state’s public image. Again and again, one is told of the hope that the North won’t think the wrong things about Alabama. That is the spirit of most of the concern. A Baltimore friend told Bill Moore just before he started out that it was naive to think that walking to Mississippi would do any good, unless, of course, he was going to get killed. But that is nonsense. The real achievement would have been for Moore to walk all the way to Jackson, carrying his signs and talking to everyone who asked him questions. His trip had a point; his death has no point at all.

The Alabama State Police picked up Floyd Simpson at his store two days after the killing. The sheriff of De Kalb County who calls him “Floyd” turned him over to the Governor’s men. That afternoon, Gaddis Killian, who had been on his mail route when the police came for him, arrived in Gadsden, a voluntary witness. He knew nothing; with ally is other troubles, he has claustrophobia; the state sent him home in a few hours, cleared it seemed of the smallest suspicion. Even so the sheriff of De Kalb County was deputed to ask Killian a few more questions; he would have called Killian in right away, but then “Gad said he’s in bed and feels awful, so I guess I’ll go down and see him later.” Slowly, the sheriff’s office returned to its old independent fraternal manners. 

Mrs. Simpson was at the store packing a change of jail clothing for her husband, to be carried to Gadsden by his brother Morris. Morris waited outside looking at some arrowheads a farmer had found. He looked at a long one: “Go right through a man,” he said admiringly. It was time for his errand of mercy; Mrs. Simpson asked him tow air while she went back for cigarettes which Floyd would certainly want. Then Morris was gone, leaving his mother, his brother’s children and sister-in-law to sit on the porch with worries about being alone, and the costs of a trial.

As soon as the town folk of Colbran were sure it was Floy the police blamed, then Colbran began to know that it could not be Floyd, because it could not be any one of them. One of Floyd’s friends said that maybe the Governor is beginning to wonder if he hadn’t moved too fast; he must have expected some tramp and here his police had given him instead this man everybody knew. By the weekend the store was filled with friends bringing Mrs. Simpson assurance that it would come out right. A photographer came by to take her picture; he was thrown out. Fort Payne is all the Family of Man these people know; the family was closing ranks. 

Bill Moore’s aunt in Birmingham was his closest tie within reach. It might help to talk to someone who had known Bill Moore before the last day of his life.

Mrs. Cagle stood behind her locked screen door.

“Too much has been said about already. We don’t want to read any more about him. If you men will grant my request and his family’s you’ll print nothing more about him. He wasn’t, uh, responsible.”

And Bill Moore’s family closed ranks too, taking every other part of him into its care and shutting out only his delusion. By now the most important thing about that last day was suddenly the affectionate recollection of those North Alabama cops. They, of all people, had at least taken him on his own terms.

This article appeared in the May 11, 1963 issue of the magazine.