A roadside marker memorializes a civil rights murder in Alabama In 1963, William Lewis Moore was murdered in Alabama while on a civil rights protest walk. Silence around the murder bothered one man for years, until he campaigned to put up a marker about it.

COMIC: The roadside marker unlocking a forgotten civil rights murder

Historical markers are an iconic part of the American landscape. They appear by the sides of roads, in towns, at rest areas and even in the middle of nowhere.

If you drive down U.S. 11, a couple of miles past Gadsden, Ala., you'll find a marker about the life and death of William Lewis Moore, who was murdered on a civil rights protest walk. The silence around Moore's murder bothered one man for years, until he started a campaign to put up a marker about it.

This comic is part of a yearlong investigation by NPR into the fractured and confusing landscape of historical markers in America.

In 1963, William Lewis Moore set off on foot from Chattanooga, Tenn., to deliver a letter to the governor of Mississippi, urging him to end segregation. Moore, a white man wearing a buttoned-up shirt, peers down a wooded highway road. Only two days into his journey to Jackson, Miss., Moore's act of civil protest would cost him his life. Moore's bloodied hand lies on the road next to his letter.
 
A historical marker now stands along the highway in Alabama where he was murdered. What's in a historical marker? Despite their official-looking appearance on roads, on buildings and in public areas, anyone can put one up. You just need an idea and money. These aforementioned words float around a common marker template: a rectangular sign, with a rounded top edge for a state seal.
 
They have been both carefully researched and hastily written. Some have been used to commemorate or boast. Others have been used to spread lies or hate. More often, they show the changing ways that the U.S. tells its history. A marker border illuminates a simple stone warehouse. Outside its borders, Colonial soldiers and Native American men face off in a bloody struggle.
 
Moore's marker can be traced back to the efforts of one man — Jerry Smith. "I always dreamed of Utopia and I was not content merely to dream. Therefore my story." — William L. Moore, The Mind in Chains: The Autobiography of a Schizophrenic. Moore was born in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1927. He was raised in Mississippi for part of his childhood, before returning to Binghamton.
 
He learned about World War II in school. In his memoir, he remembers dreaming of evangelizing nonviolence to world leaders, partly to cope with confusion about social norms. He later served in the Marine Corps during WWII before using the GI bill to attend multiple colleges. As a graduate student, Moore suffered a breakdown and received treatment for schizophrenia at a mental institution.
 
Afterward, he wrote a memoir about his experience and organized mental health initiatives. His childhood dream was now bolstered by his own experience on the margins. "I still even want to crusade, to do so much to help the outside world and its people." He gained a reputation in Binghamton for protesting, though his crusading and atheism started to drive a wedge between him and his family.
 
Moore moved to Baltimore alone to get closer to civil rights organizing, a cause that he increasingly believed in. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in protests. He attempted several shorter solo marches before his final walk. These peace walks had been done by other protesters before. As Moore was a postal worker in his day job, the walks were special to him.
 
Moore dreamed of a longer one-man march through the South. "This could be something big, for which my whole life has been a sort of preparation," he wrote in a letter to his wife. Moore's wife and fellow activists warned him of the danger he'd be in. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!" — George Wallace, governor of Alabama, at his inauguration speech on Jan. 14, 1963
 
Martin Luther King Jr., along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an Alabama civil rights group, was about to start a huge campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Moore was undeterred. "He believed that people would do the right thing, if they knew what that was," says Mary Stanton, who wrote the book Freedom Walk about Moore's life. April 21, 1963.
 
Days earlier, King had been arrested and had penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Soon, police would unleash fire hoses and dogs on young Black protesters, shocking the world. Moore stepped off a bus in Chattanooga and started to walk. He wore a sign with anti-segregation slogans and carried a sign calling Jesus a "revolutionary, consorter with criminals and prostitutes."
 
He bore a letter addressed to Gov. Ross Barnett, urging him to end segregation in Mississippi: "Do not go down in infamy as one who fought the democracy for all which you have not the power to prevent." An aerial view of Moore as he walks down the highway. The landscape changes from packed buildings to forested hills.
 
Moore planned to walk approximately 400 miles along U.S. 11 to Jackson, Mississippi, passing southwest through Alabama. The first couple of days of his march, he drew attention from passersby and the media. Some wished him well, some tried to warn him to stop and others disagreed with his mission. An aerial view of Moore walking, as the landscape changes from forested hills to grassy fields.
 
On the third day of Moore's walk, he passed by a small grocery store near Collbran, Ala., managed by Floyd Simpson. According to a later FBI investigation report, Simpson and some other men called him over: "10:30 — Invited to chat with a few men who had heard about my walk on TV (the first news break)," Moore noted in his journal. Floyd is a white man wearing a collared short-sleeved shirt.
 
"They didn't think I'd finish my walk alive. They didn't think people believed I really stood for the things I do," Moore wrote. Simpson and Gad Killian, one of the men from the store, found Moore later. "3:30 — A couple of men who had talked to me before drove up and questioned my religious and political beliefs." "'Now, I know what you are,'" said one of the men, according to Moore's journal.
 
"And one was sure I'd be killed for them, such as my 'Jesus' poster on my buggy." A person in the car points to his sign as the car pulls away. Sometime that day, Jerry Smith, who was in 10th grade at the time, also drove by Moore on the road. Smith is a teenager wearing a dark T-shirt. They lock eyes as they pass each other.
 
Smith remembers comparing Moore to the "outside agitators" whom Gov. George Wallace often blamed for stoking racial tensions, but he was surprised to see that Moore looked like any other guy. "He doesn't seem too bad," Smith remembers thinking. That night, Moore walked onward down U.S. 11, crossing the DeKalb-Etowah county line. The sky above him fades to black, dotted with stars.
 
We don't know exactly what happened next. Flashes of images: Moore's bare feet on the road, Moore looking up to the night sky, a car passing him.
 
A crack in the night, and Moore's shocked face. At 8:59 p.m., the Alabama Highway Patrol reported a body at the side of the road near a picnic area. Moore was found dead, with bullet wounds to the head and throat. He was about 300 miles from Jackson. The highway appears out of the darkness, with Moore's bloody hand and letters spilled across it. The road ends here.
 
The murder of a white civil rights activist drew national attention: President John F. Kennedy called it an "outrageous crime." Smith was devastated about Moore's death, but locally no one talked about it. Dark figures mill about, with eyes looking out. Simpson, the main suspect in the case, had connections to the Ku Klux Klan. In a cropped historical photo, his eyes stare out into the distance.
 
Witnesses had seen a car similar to Simpson's near the murder spot, and a state investigator believed the bullets matched Simpson's rifle. "The evidence, to me, I would have charged him," said Johnny Grant, Etowah County's assistant sheriff, in a 2023 interview with NPR. Grant is an older white man in a suit. Some of his friends were on duty that night, and he says they all suspected Simpson.
 
But a grand jury in Etowah County, where the KKK was active, declined to indict him. Years passed. The murder faded from memory, preserved as a community secret. But the present reaches back. The spot where Moore was murdered on the highway stands undisturbed, years later. Nothing but an open road and clear sky.
 
Grant quietly reinvestigated the case when he became chief investigator of the sheriff's office, but Simpson was already dead. A 2013 FBI investigation of the murder did not find enough evidence to prove that a criminal civil rights violation occurred. Multiple groups tried to finish Moore's walk, and at least one successfully did. The murder and the silence around it bothered Smith for years.
 
He had the idea to put up a historical marker to mark that Moore's murder happened. At first, people in town didn't want him to. Someone messaged Smith that it might be dangerous. But he kept talking about it and found people willing to donate. Grant, who is also an Etowah County commissioner, voted yes when Smith came asking for money. Smith, now an older man with white hair, shakes Grant's hand.
 
NPR found that Smith is one of more than 35,000 people and groups that have put up historical markers around the U.S. Anyone can do it, as long as they raise the money — for Smith, it was about $3,000. State and local review processes can vary widely. Smith worked with historians from the Alabama Historical Association to research and write the text. Various shapes of markers dot the page.
 
What's in a historical marker? These words are framed inside a marker sign. The signpost continues downward to where it's buried in the earth. Taken as a whole, markers represent how America's past can be a construct. We can choose the way we talk about it and what narratives we decide to empower. In William Lewis Moore's case, because of the efforts of dedicated people, his story lives on.
 
A lot of people saw Simpson confront Moore, Smith says. But ever since the marker went up, he and other people in town say people are willing to talk about it openly. It's too late to know exactly the truth of what happened to Moore that night. But if you drive down U.S. 11 a couple of miles past Gadsden, Ala., you'll learn this:
 
WILLIAM LEWIS MOORE (April 28, 1927 - April 23, 1963) William Lewis Moore was a white postal worker raised by grandparents in rural Mississippi. He was a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) member who staged lone protests against racial segregation. He was assassinated at this location during a 400-mile protest march from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, where he intended to ...
 

Photo references: Press & Sun-Bulletin via AP, Laura Sullivan/NPR (2), Bettmann Archive/Getty Images (2), Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Gado/Getty Images, Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images, Laura Sullivan/NPR, AP, Library of Congress, Laura Sullivan/NPR

This comic was written and illustrated by Connie Hanzhang Jin, based on reporting by Laura Sullivan and Connie Hanzhang Jin. It was edited by Emily Bogle and Robert Little, with copy editing by Preeti Aroon.