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Why A 79-Year-Old Progressive Methodist Minister Burned Himself Alive

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(image via Blair Rowan)

A view of Grand Saline’s First United Methodist Church on a gloomy day (image via Blair Rowan)

At 7:30 p.m., Kathy Renfro, the daughter of Moore’s current wife, received a call. Her step-father had apparently tried to commit suicide and was being care-flighted to Parkland Hospital in Dallas. She and her husband, retired Reverend William Renfro immediately left their Austin home to meet Moore’s wife Barbara in Allen, Texas.

During the car ride, William thought about the time he’d spent with Moore during the holidays: whenever they weren’t watching football, they’d get into intense political and theological discussions. As far as he knew, Moore loved Barbara and wasn’t in any financial trouble, so why had he tried to commit suicide? The possibility of self-sacrifice flickered briefly in Renfro’s mind, but faded away. Sure, he could imagine Moore killing himself for a greater cause, but he never thought he’d actually do it.

Moore arrived at Parkland Hospital with third-degree burns covering over 85 percent of his body — the doctor said he didn’t even look human any more. The shock had put him into a coma, and as he laid in the burn unit connected to a respirator, the doctor informed his wife Barbara and youngest son Guy that he probably wouldn’t survive the night. She knew Charles wouldn’t want to stay on life support, so she and Guy prayed in the room — Moore’s body hidden under a sheet. They then disconnected him. Forty-five minutes later, the Reverend Charles Moore was dead.

Renfro entered Moore’s home and immediately began searching for clues. He scanned the bedroom, living room and then Moore’s study — a side room whose window looked onto the park where he used to play with his grandkids. Upon the credenza where Moore composed his many homilies, Renfro eyed a conspicuous stack of manila folders. Opening one up, he discovered a collection of typed journal entires, a New Yorker article about self-immolation and a few suicide notes including one that Moore had typed that morning, entitled “O Grand Saline.”

The letter recounted the racism Moore had experienced in the east Texas town. As a boy he’d heard “the usual racial slurs”; he’d never met a black person until college. Around age 10, he’d met a man calling himself “Uncle Billy” who bragged to Moore and his friends about wanting to “kill niggers” and hang their heads in the Poletown section of town. Moore claimed that the local church had begun excluding him from activities after he voiced support for the Supreme Court’s school integration ruling. He bemoaned the town’s lack of racial diversity and the Ku Klux Klan’s historic involvement in its surrounding areas.

His letter concluded:

“America (and Grand Saline prominently) have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath… Many African Americans were lynched around here… hanged decapitated and burned, some while still alive. The vision 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 — but especially for the citizens of Grand Saline, many of whom have been very kind to me and others who may be moved to change the situation here.”

One can hardly verify Moore’s experiences anymore than ask him about them. He grew up during the pre-Civil Rights era, when east Texas towns still had “colored only” toilets and dining areas. Furthermore, he and other locals remember an infamous sign warning “Niggers: Don’t let the sun go down on you in Grand Saline.” Other “sundown towns” of the time had similar signs, but while locals debate the sign’s existence, it remains entrenched in the public imagination either way.

Poletown, Grand Saline, historical marker, woods

A historical marker for the Poletown area of Grand Saline. Though local legend says that the area’s name comes from a Black man’s head being hung on a pole there, the historical marker explains that its name actually derives from the wooden poles that the area’s earliest residents used to make shelters. (image via Eric Dickson)

As part of the cotton belt, Van Zandt County has a history of slavery which includes the Roseland Plantation — a 3,000 acre cotton farm that had 57 to 100 slaves — 25 miles from Grand Saline. Shortly after their emancipation in 1865, two Black Van Zandt County men got beaten so badly by their former handlers that they remained face down and bleeding for hours afterward.

The region got a Freedman’s Bureau to help protect Black citizens in 1867, but even then it was located 35 miles away in Tyler, and its soldiers had no horses and only one musket between them. That same year, locals in the nearby town of Kaufman ambushed and slaughtered a Bureau agent from Dallas. Local authorities ended up too intimidated by racist outlaws to help the Bureau prosecute any anti-Black assailants, protection be damned.

The intimidation came mostly from the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In 1868, they set up a makeshift military-training encampment of roughly 100 to 300 men (depending on who you ask): rebels, desperadoes and Klansmen lead by a man named Bickerstaff. They would take Black and pro-Unionist men out of their homes, publicly whip them and leave them tied to trees, occasionally shooting and raping their wives, looting and burning their homes and businesses for good measure.

Soon, the postal service stopped operating. Residents stopped holding outdoor potlucks and dances “for fear of ambush.” One night the following year, Bickerstaff’s gang dragged Dr. Page — a local physician of Black patients — out of his home, mutilated his body and left his head hanging from a tree with a card warning “that others would be thus summarily dealt with.” When authorities imprisoned Dr. Page’s suspected murder, a Bickerstaff posse of 30 to 50 armed men raided the jail and freed him.

KKK, Ku Klux Klan, recruitment flyer, east Texas, Van Zandt county, Wills Point, Edgewood, Fruitvale

A Ku Klux Klan recruitment flyer distributed in 2014 and 2015 to the nearby towns of Wills Point, Edgewood and Fruitvale — all towns that, like Grand Saline, reside in Van Zandt County

Beyond these events, it’s tough to find documented proof of the town’s racism throughout the years. In 1993, after a black family moved into the Grand Saline housing authority, KKK flyers began appearing in the mailboxes and on the windshields of local residents. While no additional violence ever occurred, a Black resident reported that the family still lived in terror as police guarded them 24-hours a day. They soon left town.

The KKK’s presence persists to this day though, literally surrounding Grand Saline with active chapters in Mount Pleasant, Lone Oak, Greenville, Longview and Dallas — all 70 miles within every direction.

“Anyone who has grown up in East Texas knows the history of this town. It isn’t a secret,” wrote Wendi Callaway, editor of The Grand Saline Sun, in a nearly 2,000-word Facebook post published 10 days after Moore’s death. She continued, “The ‘legends’… and the prominent Ku Klux Klan activity in this town before, during and after the Civil Right Movement in the ‘50s are not folklore or campfire stories. They are real.”

She sympathized with Moore’s outlook, even claiming that he “didn’t do more to bring about change here because he was fearful” of retaliation. She asked readers to examine their own racism and praised others for helping improve the town’s prejudiced image. But not everyone shared her appreciation of Moore.

Bert Rex Fite, the current editor of The Grand Saline Sun called Moore an idiot for making the town seem full of backwoods racists. One employee in the mini-mall where Moore killed himself called Moore and his parents “bonkers” adding, “They were all crazy, the lot of ‘em.” Three months after her Facebook post, the newspaper’s then-publisher Dan Moore fired Callaway. When asked why, he replied only, “It was time for a change.”

Behind the altar at First United Methodist Church in Grand Saline, Texas.

Behind the altar at First United Methodist Church in Grand Saline, Texas. (image via Blair Rowan)

The minister at Grand Saline’s First United Methodist Church, Reverend Bobby Davis, only heard of Moore and his alleged exclusion from First United after Moore died. Davis says he would have invited Moore to see how much the congregation had changed.

Sure, Grand Saline is a two-mile town with 2,396 White folks and only 22 Black ones, but Davis says, “I don’t see any overt racism. What I see is overt community involvement, the desire to help people, to be engaged, to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Is everyone here as diverse in thought as they need to be?”

He trails off for a bit, contemplating briefly in the sanctuary doorway, then continues, “I believe in my heart that this church would be as welcoming of anyone of color, anyone of any sexual orientation and so-forth.” He points to Dr. Richard Taylor, the black interim pastor at the predominantly white Main Street Baptist Church next door, as evidence of the community’s movement in the right direction.

A few weeks after Moore’s death, 13 Grand Saline residents signed a letter to The Grand Saline Sun rebutting the town’s racist reputation. They claimed that the town’s violent history after the Civil War was no worse than anywhere else in the south, and that had any exceptional violence occurred, the national press would have covered it. The letter concludes:

“Are there racists in Grand Saline today? No doubt. Are we a racist community? God forbid… We work and volunteer tirelessly to try to better our town and we welcome people of any race or ethnicity with open arms. The last thing we need is more bad publicity and recounting the ‘folklore and campfire stories’ that disparage our town, especially if they are presented as ‘the truth.’”

James Sanchez — a former five-year resident of Grand Saline and doctoral candidate at Texas Christian University — is writing a dissertation on Charles Moore’s death entitled The Pain in Forgetting and Remembering Racism. He clearly recalls several racist instances during his years playing high school football in Grand Saline.

Despite a fourth of the student body being Hispanic, one coach regularly called him “Taco Roll.” Another coach cautioned his team not to piss off Black opponents because they become better athletes when angry. Sanchez also heard an oft-repeated pseudoscience that Black people ran faster on account of their extra leg muscles.

Once, after a pep rally, he heard some football players in the gym chanting, “We’re all right because we’re all white!” — well within earshot of adults who said nothing. That anyone would consider such a chant permissible illustrates to Sanchez the mindset that pervades Grand Saline. Racism exists in small everyday varieties, even if you can’t point to it in a newspaper article. And when you put them all together, Sanchez says, it forms a culture and a reputation.

Sanchez writes on his personal blog:

“Sometimes truth doesn’t have to be historical; it can be perceived… As the history of Grand Saline’s racism wanes to lack of findings in recorded evidence, its perception continues on in an unrelenting, burning flame… one that still looms in the present. One that will never go away unless they consciously, explicitly attempt to eradicate it.”

But for Bill Renfro — Moore’s stepson-in-law who discovered his Grand Saline suicide note — focusing too much on Grand Saline’s racism misses the larger point:

“Grand Saline was very minor in the overall reasoning for [Moore’s] act. He experienced some ostracism because of his liberal leanings… and he carried that hurt and that pain. But it was a small part of who he was, what he stood for and what the act was. It’s not to belittle it. What I don’t want to see is the focus on (Grand Saline) when he was making a statement to the injustices in the nation and in the world.”

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