Texas Monstrosity

Two years ago, on June 23, 2014, Dallas resident Charles Robert Moore drove to his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas and parked his car in a Dollar General parking lot on East Garland Street. He lingered there momentarily and then placed a foam mat on the ground. He knelt down on the mat, poured gasoline over his head and lit a match. He immediately burst into flames.

As Moore stood up and began to scream, two men rushed over and extinguished the blaze. He was transported to Parkland Hospital, but succumbed to his burns later that day.

By all accounts, Charles Robert Moore was a man of conscience and conviction. As a former Methodist minister in Austin, Moore participated in over 100 protests against the death penalty and once went on a hunger strike to protest discriminatory language in the literature of the United Methodist Church.

He traveled in India, Africa and the Middle East and was not afraid to challenge his beliefs. He was also steadfastly committed to defending the rights and beliefs of others. As one colleague put it, “If you were ever on the side of powerlessness, if you were ever on the margins yourself and looking for someone to help you, Charles was the person.”

In his retirement—at an age when most folks relaxed and contented themselves with sitting back and simply enjoying the time they had left—Moore was still mindful of injustice. He thought back to his youth in East Texas. He lamented the discrimination and persecution that African Americans there had experienced at the hands of their white neighbors and wondered if he had done enough about it.

He was haunted by this question.

Though Moore’s existence was characterized by courageous stances and an unwavering adherence to the principles of righteous opposition, Moore was troubled by the possibility of his own adolescent apathy and/or inaction—what most of us would consider a forgivable dalliance of youth. He wanted to bring attention to the atrocities that African Americans in his community suffered and the continued disempowerment and marginalization that they endure to the present day.

After Charles Robert Moore killed himself, his relatives found a note that conveyed the sense of urgency he felt regarding the issue he died for:

I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others, but I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service.

Moore’s hometown newspaper’s response to his act was to describe him as a troubled old man. The Tyler Morning Telegraph reported his self-immolation under a headline that read “Madman or Martyr? Retired minister sets self on fire, dies.”

The story of Moore’s self-immolation made the Telegraph, the Longview News Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Post and a few others; but his death did not draw widespread, serious news coverage or attract substantial attention to the history and issues he was disturbed by.

In Moore’s own words:

Many African Americans were lynched around here, probably some in Grand Saline; hanged, decapitated and burned, some while still alive. The vision of them haunts me greatly. So, at this late date, I have decided to join them by giving my body to be burned, with love in my heart not only for them but also for the perpetrators of such horror.

Over four dozen African Americans have been burned at the stake in Texas, and the majority of these tortured souls met their fiery end in East Texas. The crimes that Moore was concerned about are still being ignored, and the regimen of domestic terrorism these atrocities represent is still hardly being discussed, much less acknowledged or addressed.

There is something evil about ignoring these monstrosities. There is something monstrous about Texans and Texas communities who condone this ignorance.

Native Texan E.R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious and Texas Oblivion: Mysterious Disappearances, Escapes and Cover-Ups. Read other articles by E.R..