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A historic road marker tells the story of a forgotten murder


This week, NPR begins its series Off The Mark, about the nation's historical markers. There are more than 180,000 markers across the country. Have you ever stopped to read one? Well, NPR has spent the past year examining a public database of these markers and found many of them spread joy, some have spread hate and others have the power to unlock secrets. NPR's Laura Sullivan went to Alabama to learn about a marker on the site of a long forgotten murder on the edge of a dusty, two-lane highway.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If you're heading out to see a historical marker, there's a good chance you're getting in a car, because for more than a century, the side of the road has been one of the most popular places to put them.


SULLIVAN: And there's also a pretty good chance, like on a recent day with Jerry Smith, you're heading out to a place noting where someone died.

JERRY SMITH: Do you want to go kind of north?

SULLIVAN: Let's start chronologically where you first saw him.

SMITH: I'm going to go further than that. I'm going to go to the place that got his [expletive] killed.

SULLIVAN: Smith pulls his car onto U.S. 11 just a few miles outside Gadsden, Ala.

What is Gadsden known for?

SMITH: Not a damn thing.

SULLIVAN: But that's not entirely true. At least not anymore, because just a little bit down this road is a new historical marker that says otherwise. It's a tale that began 61 years ago when a teenage Jerry Smith was driving down this very road. He spotted a strange man pulling a wagon. Smith could tell the man wasn't from here. He was what Alabama's then governor, George Wallace, had warned about.

SMITH: His favorite term was outside agitators. If they would leave us alone in Alabama, everything is fine. But these outside agitators are fanning racial fire. Well, it was George Wallace that was fanning racial fire. But, you know, early on, I might have been a little too dumb to know that.

SULLIVAN: As he slowed down to pass the man, Smith was surprised to see he looked just like any other guy. The two locked eyes. Smith thinks the man may have even smiled a little. So when, just a couple hours later, someone shot the man pointblank and left his body on the side of the road, Smith was deeply troubled, and yet he knew better than to talk about it.

SMITH: There was a lot of people that thought this guy walking down the road pulling a buggy, we didn't need him. And there were some people that - that guy's - he's not fit for being here. We ought to kill him, you know?

SULLIVAN: The guy's name was William Moore. He was a postal worker from Baltimore who Smith correctly deduced was walking across Alabama as part of a one-man Civil Rights protest. His sign said equal rights for all. His murder has never been solved, at least not officially. It bothered Smith for years, but what bothered him more was the silence.

SMITH: The years passed by, other things happened. This lost significance in the eyes of Alabamians.

SULLIVAN: Smith wondered, what could he do? And then one day, as he was driving, it dawned on him.

SMITH: I thought, at least we ought to have a plaque.

SULLIVAN: When he first pitched the idea of a marker, Smith says people in town didn't like it. Let the pass lie, they said. One person even messaged him on Facebook saying it might be dangerous. But he just kept talking about it, calling people. And then he went and made a speech in front of the county commission, and they voted unanimously to pay for it.

SMITH: We're at the site of the assassination.


SULLIVAN: Smith walks over to the new black and gold marker. It's on a gravel patch between the road and the train tracks.

SMITH: Well, this is it.

SULLIVAN: (Reading) William Lewis Moore was a white postal worker raised by grandparents in rural Mississippi. He was assassinated at this location during a 400-mile protest march.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Smith circles around back to make sure the marker is holding up. On the day it was unveiled, several dozen people came out in the rain to see it. Someone even left flowers at the base.

SMITH: Here comes a train.


SMITH: This is Norfolk Southern main line.

SULLIVAN: The train barrels through just like it used to when William Moore pulled his wagon down this road. Except now his death is no longer a community secret - it's history. Public history. It says so right here on the sign. And ever since it went up, something strange has started to happen. People are talking about the murder. And now at the diner, the town museum, even the local sheriff's office, lots of people will tell you details that many people have known for decades - that Moore stopped at a grocery store along the road, that he got into a confrontation with the store manager, and that the manager's name was Floyd Simpson.

JOHNNY GRANT: He's the one that everyone thought - that thinks did it.

SULLIVAN: Johnny Grant is the county's assistant sheriff. He spent the last 48 years in law enforcement here. He's never talked about Simpson publicly before. On the night of the murder, he hadn't joined the department yet, but some of his closest friends were on duty. He says they all suspected Floyd Simpson. Grant even quietly reinvestigated the case when he became chief investigator to see if more could be done. But Simpson was already dead. He died 26 years ago.

GRANT: Everything I've seen, he was in the Ku Klux Klan.

SULLIVAN: Floyd Simpson was?

GRANT: Floyd was. Simpson was.

SULLIVAN: And you saw that in the records?

GRANT: I did.

SULLIVAN: The whole idea wasn't too much of a stretch. First there was the public confrontation. Then a witness saw what look like Simpson's Buick sitting on the side of the road just before the murder. And then a state forensic technician said he believed the bullet matched Simpson's gun. But the grand jury declined to indict him, and the town put the whole thing behind them.

GRANT: Evidence, to me, I would have charged him, and I would have been able to charge him now with how many years later. But, you know, they took it to a grand jury, and a grand jury refused to indict him.

SULLIVAN: Today, Grant is also an Etowah County commissioner. When Jerry Smith came forward one day asking for marker money, Grant quickly voted yes.

GRANT: That was just hate.

SULLIVAN: Grant says he thinks the marker is one of the best things the county has done.

GRANT: It will always be a black eye of the Etowah County. I just hope as a law enforcement that they did everything they could to solve it.

SULLIVAN: Now that black eye is on the side of the road for everyone to see, but it is also a symbol of change. And like tens of thousands of markers across the country, it's own piece of the American story. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.