Moore, Cecil B.

By Sara A. Borden

Cecil B. Moore (1967) Cecil Bassett Moore (1915-1979) was a prominent Philadelphia defense attorney and civil rights leader known for his militant style of activism.  He was born in West Virginia in 1915 and attended high school in Kentucky, but returned to West Virgina to study at Bluefield College.  After graduation, Moore became a traveling insurance salesman and eventually enlisted in the Marine Corps.  Serving overseas during World War II, Moore achieved the rank of sergeant.  Moore’s military experience greatly influenced his approach to civil rights activism and caused him to question others’ use of non-violence.

Upon his return to the United States, Moore settled in Philadelphia in 1947, where he studied law at Temple University.  Moore attended school at night and financed his studies with a job as a liquor wholesaler.  He cultivated ties with the bar owners to whom he sold his wares and they became an important basis for his political constituency later in his career. After receiving his law degree in 1953, Moore established a reputation as a skilled defense attorney, as well as a militant leader in Philadelphia’s civil rights movement.

Cecil B. Moore (1967) With his brash, often confrontational manner of speaking, gravelly voice, ubiquitous cigars, penchant for bourbon whiskey, and flashy suits, Moore cut a one-of-a-kind profile.  He never backed down from a confrontation and his West Virginia roots often made him feel like an outsider in Philadelphia.  Throughout his career, Moore used his outsider status to build a reputation as someone who did not come from the middle-class African-American society that often dominated Philadelphia’s civil rights movement, despite long-term residency within the city.  The position Moore created for himself enabled him to help the common man and run independent black political campaigns outside the white establishment and mainstream black networks.

Moore believed that every man should do his part to help those less fortunate.  “You can’t live in this world unless you help somebody,” he said to the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 1, 1974.  Moore also believed that maintaining unity within the black community was essential to the success of the civil rights movement. Yet Moore himself was a lightning rod for controversy and often the cause of divisiveness.  Moore’s confrontational, tell-it-like-it-is attitude rubbed many of his fellow civil rights leaders the wrong way and his leadership style was a marked break from the older generation of activists who led civil rights campaigns in the 1950s.  Whereas many before him were open to calm discussion, Moore had little patience for negotiation.  “In a lot of circles, I’m...unwanted,” Moore asserted in the same Inquirer excerpt from December 1, 1974.  “I said to hell with the club, let’s fight the damn system.  I don’t want no more than the white man got, but I won’t take no less.”  This militancy often resulted in strained associations with those who had a more moderate approach.

Moore was rumored to have a difficult relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which came to a head in the press.Cecil B. Moore and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)   In the mid-1960s, stories arose that Moore actively discouraged King from visiting the city, though to what extent the press played up such conflicts is uncertain.  On July 29, 1963, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin compared Moore to Roy Wilkins, famed leader of the national NAACP.  Wilkins, according to the paper, possessed “quiet dignity, reasonableness in discussion and personal trustworthiness.”  However, the Bulletin viewed Moore differently:  “...Wilkins is sober, undramatic and the very opposite of flashy[.]  Cecil Moore is vivid, violent, intensely dramatic...in everything he wears and says and does.  His aim, plainly, is not to insure confidence in his white interlocutors.  His aim, rather, is to excite and stir his own people.”     

One way Moore attempted to stir his people was by encouraging African Americans to vote.  Moore deeply believed in the power of the individual vote, as well as participation in political campaigns.  Voter registration drives were a key part of his civil rights strategy.  Another political strategy that Moore favored was picketing.  He used pickets to gain black admittance to labor unions, especially construction; to achieve public school integration; fight bias in the work force in places such as the post office; and to allow black children entry into Girard College.  By 1962, Moore’s notoriety and protest tactics led him to the presidency of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP.  

As with most of Moore’s endeavors, his involvement in the NAACP was highly controversial.  Moore was elected President of the local NAACP and immediately called out Philadelphia leaders in the inaugural speech he gave in January of 1963, as covered by the Philadelphia Afro-American on January 19:  “We are serving notice that no longer will the plantation system of white men appointing our leaders exist in Philadelphia.”  That same year, his confrontational approach caused some members of the NAACP board to resign amidst discussion that Moore was a “dictator,” according to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on February 12, 1963.  As Moore’s tenure progressed, he became a lightning rod for accusations.  The most serious of these allegations came in late 1964 when some members claimed that NAACP funds were misappropriated.  The organization opened an investigation into financial irresponsibility and, while Moore was eventually cleared of all charges, the damage was done.  In the spring of 1967, the national NAACP split the Philadelphia branch into three smaller branches, leaving Moore President of the North Philadelphia branch.  As such, Moore’s power was lessened and he was eventually suspended from his office in July of 1967.

Cecil B. Moore following NAACP election (1965) Despite his outsize personality and schisms with other civil rights leaders, Moore maintained massive public support within the black community.  Never shy, Moore described himself in a December 1, 1974 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer as follows: “Yeah, I’m everything everybody says except two - I’m not a hypocrite and I’m not a quitter.  Once I told 10,000 people at a convention that I admit I’m adulterous, polygamous, inebriate, but I’m intelligent and militant, and if you’re with me, stand up.  Ten thousand stood up.”  Moore died of cardiac arrest in 1979 at the age of 63.


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References

“Moore, Cecil B.--Biography & Sketches” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--City Council” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--Comments on” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--King, Martin Luther” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1963 Aug-Oct” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1963 July” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1963 June” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1963 May” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1963 Nov-Dec” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1964” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, newspaper clipping collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1965” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--1967” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

“Moore, Cecil B.--NAACP--Prior to 1963 May” folder.  George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper clipping collection, Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

Willis, Arthur C.  Cecil’s City:  A History of Blacks in Philadelphia, 1638-1979.  New York, NY:  Carlton Press Inc., 1990.


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Comments

Just a correction--Cecil B.

Just a correction--Cecil B. Moore attended Bluefield State College, not Bluefield College.  They are two distinct institutions.  Bluefield State is a historically black college in Bluefield, West Virginia.  Bluefield College is a Baptist school in Bluefield, Virginia.  Thank you.