This post is also available in: Português
The evening of Monday, June 23, 2014, Charles Moore — a 79-year-old retired Methodist Reverend — drove to a Dollar General parking lot in his rural hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. For hours afterwards, neither Moore’s witnesses nor his family had any idea why.
Moore had grown up in Grand Saline — a sleepy, livestock and farming town of just 3,136 people — but he left in 1954 to attend university. Outside of a brief stay following his first divorce in ‘78, he hadn’t spent much time there. For the last seven years, he had been living with his third wife Barbara in Allen, a suburb just outside of Dallas, where he would play with his grandchildren at the local park, watch Cowboys games with his stepson-in-law, gripe about Tea Party politics and write alone in his study.
But unbeknownst to them, he’d fallen into a depression after his retirement in 2000. After decades of preaching in churches across Texas, rebuilding impoverished communities around the world and doing activist work for death row inmates, poor people and LGBT outcasts, he wrote in his journal, “I am not proud of the timidity [those years of work] represent or their avoidance of physical danger.” He felt ashamed for being “completely inactive” since his retirement and for living in an “arch-conservative” Dallas suburb, adding that he’d “been nothing but a cringing coward” ever since.
“My life has been, and is, a great misery over these issues,” Moore lamented, “and I have done absolutely nothing about any of them for a long time.”
Moore believed that true disciples of Jesus had an ethical responsibility to tackle the world’s social, political and economic injustices. He also lived by the credo of John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who said that one should always do good, even if it involves taking unpopular stands or being rejected by loved ones and the community. But after a lifetime working as a progressive within the Church’s conservative hierarchy, Moore had grown tired and no longer knew how to fulfill his purpose without a church and congregation to lead.
He considered standing up and shouting about social issues during church services “like the prophets of old.” He also thought about protesting in public just to get arrested, but worried that either would embarrass his wife and family.
“I am a paralyzed soul… every avenue of effort seems closed to me,” he wrote. “Yet,” he continued, “there is one thing I have absolute control over: that is, the manner of my death.”
He’d read a July 2013 New Yorker article entitled “Aflame: A wave of self-immolation sweeps Tibet” about hundreds of contemporary Tibetan Buddhists who had immolated themselves to protest Chinese rule. The thought ignited his imagination, though he had considered the social power of fire long before then: The Methodist Church’s official insignia has two flames, each representing the incarnations of God through fire. In the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses as a burning bush and in the New Testament, God grants universal speech to the apostles during Pentecost while appearing as tongues of flame above their heads. In both cases, flames express God’s will.
Moore also had an admiration for William Tyndale, a 16th century Protestant scholar who got strangled to death and burned at the stake for translating the Bible into common English. In one 2013 note, Moore wrote, “His last words were, ‘O Lord, change the heart of the King of England.’ Less than a year later there was a Bible in the vernacular in every church in the nation.” By Moore’s calculation, the pain of self-immolation would last only a few moments and possibly draw worldwide attention to any cause he chose.
But killing himself in such a dramatic fashion would undoubtedly leave consequences for his loved ones. What if the police discovered his plan beforehand and hauled him off to jail or a mental hospital? What if he told a family member and the police later arrested them for not stopping his grisly act? What if he survived the horrific burning?
The idea haunted Moore, and he wrote that the next few years felt like “a long Gethsemane” of excruciating loneliness — a reference to the garden where Jesus prayed in solitude the night before his crucifixion. In his prayer, Jesus professed he would willingly die if it served God’s will; Moore felt the same.
He set a date for his fiery end, and as it crept near he became more distant and irritable with family and friends, blaming his dark moods on news stories and his sore foot. But he’d made up his mind. Immolation was the only form of death that would allow him to command public attention while expressing a greater intolerance for injustice — it was the only way he could demonstrably die for a purpose. And if he was lucky, it’d also be the last thing he’d ever do.
– – – – –
Self-immolation isn’t like other forms of suicide. It accounts for less than one percent all U.S. suicides and happens far more often as a form of political protest in developing Asian countries than here. For example, when 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, his protest of harassment by corrupt government officials helped ignite the Arab Spring. In contrast, when Moore set himself aflame four years later, only about 45 websites carried the story; the Tyler Morning Telegraph diminutively asked whether he was a “Madman or Martyr?” Apart from a new Charles Moore Wikipedia page, little else seemingly changed as a result.
Immolation is also much more painful than other kinds of suicide. The 1,650 to 2,280 degree flames quickly fry the skin, burning hotter and deeper upon clothing. As the skin’s sub-dermal layer quickly shrinks, it tears open, exposing the body’s fat and feeding the flames even more. The blaze consumes all oxygen, causing the lungs to seize as they fight for breath. Most people usually pass out or die within 45 seconds due to the carbon monoxide fumes.
Survivors must endure months (or even years) of hospitalization and skin graft surgeries to properly heal. Throughout that period, burn-unit nurses will regularly scrub off a patient’s rotted flesh, peel off any dead tissue and then smear antibiotics onto the survivor’s raw muscle and newly forming skin — the pain is agonizing and regularly scheduled. Survivors also have to deal with psychological trauma, extensive scarring and lifelong deformation, making death seem almost preferable.
Moore had originally planned to set himself on fire on June 23, 2013 somewhere among the brown-brick buildings and white chapel walkways of his alma mater, the Perkins Theological Seminary of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University. He first arrived at SMU in 1954 — a poor, newlywed and aspiring young minister from a small Texas town — and graduated from the seminary in 1959 with his Bachelor of Divinity. The experience left a lasting impression on him. In letters, he called Perkins his “soul’s home” and a revolutionary institution where “world changers are shaped.”
But over the decades, his views of SMU and its brand of Methodism had soured. In a June 22, 2014 letter entitled “My life/death appeal to Southern Methodist University and beyond”, Moore accused William Lawrence, the Dean of Perkins Seminary, of enthusiastically lobbying to get the newly constructed George W. Bush Presidential Center onto campus even though Bush had executed 150 inmates during his time as Texas governor.
The Methodist Church opposes capital punishment and Moore considered it a classist, racist, costly and ineffective means of deterring crime, tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. As an organizer of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, he claimed to have protested executions at least 100 times at the Texas governor’s mansion. Thus, a building honoring Bush seemed to him a grievous contradiction of the university’s Methodist aims.
Moore also saw SMU and Methodism in general as disappointingly homophobic. From 1990 to 1999, Moore used his position as minister of Grace United Methodist in Austin to advocate for LGBT people. Ignoring the Church’s disapproval of “the practice of homosexuality” — and the local bishop’s threats to have Moore voted out — Moore regularly preached radical compassion for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people; he even performed “holy union” ceremonies for same-sex couples who could not then legally marry; he opened his church to the gay Capital City Men’s Chorus and the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
In 1995, he gained national attention for his two-week hunger strike opposing the Church’s anti-gay stance during a local convening of international bishops. Moore resumed eating once the conference released a statement urging Methodist churches to be “hospitable to all,” something Moore considered a small but significant victory.
And yet Moore felt troubled by a 2011 Princeton Review ranking of SMU as the twelfth most anti-LGBT campus in America. The dubious honor reminded him of Gene Leggett, a talented classmate and fellow minister whom the Methodist Church defrocked for being openly gay in 1971. It disgusted Moore that the Methodist church used the same defrocking proceedings against Leggett as they use for ministers accused of rape, pedophilia and extortion. It also disturbed him that in 2013, the Church defrocked Reverend Frank Schaefer for officiating his own son’s same-sex wedding.
Moore had wanted the Church to restore Leggett’s position and apologize for its anti-gay stance — indeed, Leggett dedicated the remainder of his life to the effort. But Leggett died in 1987, still defrocked, and to this day the Methodist Church forbids same-sex marriages and disallows any “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as ordained ministers.
Lastly, Moore worried that the university, and the world in general, wasn’t doing enough to address America’s racial and economic inequalities. Moore had spent his career advocating for Black and poor communities, and the 2012 re-election of President Obama gave him hope for a new age of racial and economic justice. But his optimism quickly faded with the rise of racist Tea Party supporters, especially Ted Cruz, an influential Texas Tea Party senator who Moore considered a demagogue. With the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling rolling back the 1965 Voting Rights Act and more voter ID laws disenfranchising black voters, the second decade of the new millennium began looking more to him like the pre-Civil Rights era when he first started preaching.
Moore had advocated for racial integration in 1959 as a minister of the First United Methodist Church in the east Texas town of Carthage — in return, several congregants called him a communist. Later that year, he refused to don blackface in the church’s “nigger minstrel” show. Then one night, when a deacon asked Moore if he’d ever “let a nigger in his home,” Moore replied, “Of course, I would,” and the deacon suggested Moore pack his shit and move.
Another evening, while visiting the home of a parishioner, a vandal ransacked Moore’s office library, stealing several books on race. His wife Patricia began receiving strange phone calls from men telling them to leave town. They eventually did, relocating to San Antonio around 1961 so he could serve as pastor of Jefferson Methodist Church and St. Matthew’s Methodist Church, but even there, St. Matthew’s church leaders didn’t want Moore inviting an all-black choir to sing in their sanctuary.
Moore eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. theology program at Boston University and the Harvard Divinity School in 1965, but he he left two years later to go rebuild Chicago’s ghettos with a group called the Ecumenical Institute. When his family arrived to Chicago’s West Side in 1968, it followed the April assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and two days of rioting which resulted in 11 deaths, 500 injuries, over 2,150 arrests, 125 local fires and $10 million in damages. The city’s Black citizens had just begun dismantling the racist zoning laws which had kept them segregated for decades in overcrowded ghettos with few sanitation services, few recreation areas and high rates of crime and police brutality.
Eager to help, Moore spent his next four years with the Ecumenical Institute building a community center, organizing family and career workshops and recruiting others to the cause. He left the institute nine years later, but continued working on behalf of impoverished families into the ‘90s by founding South Austin Assistance Ministries, an organization of four churches that pooled their resources to help local poor people — the organization exists to this day with 18 churches now in its membership.
Moore’s letters to SMU weren’t mere airings of grievances — he had intended each one as a suicide note. In his first one dated June 23, 2013, Moore hoped that his on-campus immolation might compel former president George Bush to support a bill ending the death penalty in Texas and encourage the regional Methodist bishop to posthumously honor defrocked gay minister Gene Leggett for his honesty, bravery and service.
But Moore couldn’t go through with it. He reportedly commented in a July 19 note, “It isn’t easy to contemplate, let alone carry out, the ending of one’s life,” and then authored a second letter to Bush and the Dean of Perkins on August 2. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it then either. A year passed, then the idea rekindled itself, with a new hope of illuminating slightly different issues.
In a June 16, 2014 letter, Moore wrote that he hoped his death would get the Perkins Seminary and Methodist Church to pursue the progressive aims included in Methodism’s Social Principles: namely, the abolishment of the death penalty, protection of environmental laws and the reproductive rights of women, an opposition to war and support of free public education and tax structures favoring the poor. Also, to draw attention to contemporary racism, Moore wanted to end his life on June 19 or “Juneteenth” — the holiday commemorating the official emancipation of slaves in Texas — but still he couldn’t do it.
He typed a fourth suicide note the day after, stating, “I was very disappointed yesterday that my courage failed…” June 20 marked the 50th anniversary of three black civil rights workers burned to death in Mississippi by the KKK; he thought his suicide might help “keep the memory of those three brave men alive.” But he demurred once again, writing on the 21st, “Another day gone by — another failure — but it is hard to face the flames.”
In a June 22 suicide note, Moore reaffirmed his decision to end his life at SMU, saying, “I love this school and know what great influence it could have…” Even so, he added, “I am deeply sorry… to create such a horrendous scene on this beautiful campus.” He pledged “only to hurt myself and to not to damage any more than necessary the beauty of SMU.” But yet again, he couldn’t do it.
Had he tried any of his five intended dates, it’s uncertain whether he would have succeeded. Only a fraction of the seminary’s students and faculty would have been on campus during the summer session though security might have caught wind of his actions and put a stop to them. It’s a moot speculation because the next day, Moore finally went through with his plan.
But instead of immolating himself at SMU, he drove his Volkswagen hatchback 87 miles away to his hometown of Grand Saline and set himself aflame there.
The highways connecting SMU and Grand Saline cut a long, winding stretch through small Texas towns with names like Sunnyvale, Forney and Myrtle Springs. Dairy Queen billboards, shuttered fireworks trailers and dilapidated gas stations line the frontage roads as giant electric towers step over the interstate onto the prairies, disappearing one after another into the distance.
Eventually, a long train emerges from behind the east Texas pines rolling into Grand Saline’s town square, a ’50s-era district haunted by dusty storefronts: there’s Jalapeños Tex Mex Cafe (currently closed and for sale), the RexAll Drugs Old City Pharmacy, Coffeeshop and Museum (all one place) and the Genesis Home Care & Hospice — its sign reading “A New Beginning” above its tattered green awning, skeletal metal frame showing underneath.
A few blocks away, next to the roadside military memorial — a large tank, massive anchor and ornamental blue-and-yellow jets — is the Round-Up, a combination skating rink and sno-cone stand with the words “IN GOD WE STILL TRUST” painted in red, white and blue above the Texas, American and Christian flags.
The entire town sits atop a mountainous salt dome about four cubic miles wide. For hundreds of years, the Caddo Native Americans boiled water from the town’s salty ponds and streams, collecting the salt crystals and selling them in the Nacogdoches marketplace 119 miles away. Then around 1844, a bunch of white settlers slaughtered the local tribes, and two white land surveyors purchased the land and made a industry off of the tribes’ salt evaporation process. These days, Indians are just the local high school mascot and Morton Salt runs the town’s salt processing plant, just as it has since 1920.
Near the middle of town, you’ll find the parking lot where Charles Moore ended his life, an unexceptional, broken asphalt slab with a tall signs for Dollar General, Economy Drug and SophistiKutz salon, a stationary eighteen-wheeler off to the side, the driver nowhere in sight.
At 10:30 a.m. the overcast morning of June 23, 2014, SophistiKutz employee Mallie Munn saw a silver-haired man leaning against his car and watching the traffic. Throughout the day she’d see him whenever she looked out the window. She didn’t think much of it — all sorts of people hang out in the lot; it’s known as the Bear Grounds and is one of the few places in Grand Saline where you can loiter without anyone raising a fuss.
But by 3 p.m., the temperature had climbed to a balmy 90.4 degrees. Munn watched curiously as the old man rooted through his trunk, walked to the Dollar General, rested near a crate outside, then returned to his car. She thought, Maybe he’s waiting for someone to buy his car.
Around 5:15, she, her co-worker Angi McPherson and their two male friends, Dewayne Mosley and Steven Goggans, sat and talked on the salon curb, watching as the old man removed a small cushion and a red plastic container from his trunk.
He laid the cushion in the middle of the lot and knelt upon it; Munn scrunched up her face: had he really brought a gardening pad just to pull up weeds in this random parking lot? He then lifted the container above his head and doused himself with liquid: pouring it up his left leg, onto his shoulders, over his back, down his right side, then in circles over his chest and face, shaking it to its last drop.
There’s no way that can possibly be what I think it is, Munn thought.
He threw the container aside then put his hand into his right pants’ pocket, pulling out a BBQ lighter. Munn swears she heard it click. Suddenly, he went up in flames, his khakis and short-sleeved shirt igniting, his charred outline visible in the living blaze. Munn heard a low pained moaning coming from the roaring flames — a sound that seemed to emanate from his body rather than his mouth.
The burning man stood up from his cushion, took a few paces, turned slightly then fell over. Immediately, Goggans sprinted over, removing his button-up shirt to try and unsuccessfully smother the flames. Munn ran inside to grab a fire extinguisher as McPherson called 9-1-1.
“We need help down here right now,” McPherson told the operator. “There’s a man on fire!”
“What do you mean?” the operator asked.
Munn found an extinguisher, but suddenly realized that she’d never used one, nor did she particularly want to see the man melting outside. So she exchanged it with McPherson for the phone.
“Hello?” the operator called out, “What’s going on?”
“He is on FI-RE!” Munn repeated. “On fire. Him. On fire.”
“Okay, we’ll send a firetruck and ambulance.”
Munn provided directions and the operator said, “Someone will be there shortly,” before hanging up. Munn stared at the phone in disbelief. McPherson re-entered the salon.
“They hung up on me!” Mann said. The operator didn’t ask if anyone else was hurt or in danger. McPherson called back, but the operator said she’d already sent help and hung up on her too. Looking out the salon window, the men had already extinguished Moore’s flames — his clothes had burned away, revealing a melted body underneath.
Munn couldn’t bring herself to step outside. She watched from the window until the ambulance finally took the old man away. Afterwards, she stepped out onto the curb, sat down, started sniffling and trying hard not to cry. What if I had gone and talked to him? she wondered. Was I supposed to stop this in some way?
As the sun set, Munn and the three other witnesses sat quietly in the parking lot, watching silently as a crowd of 25 people gathered, talking in horrified whispers about what had happened.
Over the next few days, townsfolk would walk into SophistiKutz and pump Munn for information, saying things like, “I’m so sorry,” “You’re too young to have to see such a thing,” and “You should really see a grief counselor.” The condescension irritated her.
While she had never seen anything so horrific, she felt sadness and anger rather than shock and self-pity: Sadness that the man had felt the need to kill himself and anger over the many unanswered questions he’d left behind. Why had he come to Grand Saline — in front of her salon in particular — just to kill himself?
The entire following week, Munn and the three witnesses spent their evenings seated in front of SophistiKuts, staring out into the parking lot and discussing what had happened. Munn is the only one still open to discussing what happened with the media. Not long afterwards, she heard about Moore’s final suicide note — the one he wrote specifically for Grand Saline that no one had read.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Focusing on Grand Saline also overlooks a second important point: that people who kill themselves are often mentally unwell. Moore killed himself not only to protest racism, but also because he was depressed. Moore had many regrets and doubts about his life’s work. In order to rebuild communities with the Ecumenical Institute (EI) during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Moore effectively broke up his family, something he regretted for the rest of his life.
After arriving in Chicago in 1968, Moore sent his 12-year-old son Steven to an EI family in Michigan so he could live and work on community projects with teens close to his own age. Moore, his wife Patricia and their six-year-old son Guy began living in a tiny dormitory apartment in an EI ghetto compound. Guy remembers it as a war zone with intruders scaling the perimeter fence at night, bricks thrown through the apartment windows and gang members looting and shooting while he traveled to and from school. As one of the only White students at Leif Ericson Elementary, Black kids would beat Guy up for money, not realizing his parents made only a modest stipend for their work.
Guy barely saw his parents at all. Except for a brief morning break and bedtime, the EI’s regimented schedule kept Patricia and Charles in church and community activities from 5 a.m. until well after dark. Guy says that other adults basically raised him; over time, he began distrusting his parents and keeping feelings to himself. Charles and Patricia would fly Stephen in several times a year for Christmas, his birthday and odd weekends, but they’d never live together as a family again.
Patricia felt conflicted. Although she admired the EI’s world-changing goals, she found Chicago frightening and disliked seeing her children grow up without her. She considered divorce, but says, “Back when I grew up, divorce was very much frowned upon and when you made a life choice for your mate, that’s was it: a life choice. I thought I had to do [the Ecumenical Institute] because that’s what he was choosing to do.”
Charles said that if she ever divorced him, he’d call her a deserter and take full custody of their kids, so she stayed. After Charles and Patricia left for six-month EI assignments in India, Guy and Steven went off to live with other EI families and eventually dropped out of school. That proved the breaking point for her. She moved back to the U.S. in 1977, reunited with her children and divorced Charles the following year.
Charles eventually expressed his tremendous guilt to his youngest son. “He wished that he had done things differently and was sorry for the suffering that Steve and I went through and that he wasn’t a very good father,” Guy says. “He was always concerned with large scale human struggle and sometimes that came at the expense of his family.”
And yet, watching Charles interact with his grandchildren, Guy saw a new man — a man who gave hugs, said “I love you” and played games — all things Charles never did with his own kids.
“I think he was just now learning how to love,” says Patricia of Charles’ final years. “It’s one thing to love humanity, saving humanity. It’s quite another thing to love on a daily basis those with whom you are intimate. Say what you want, but it’s never easy.”
– – – – –
Contrary to popular depictions on TV and movies, most suicide victims don’t usually leave notes; only 25 percent of them do. They also don’t usually choose a significant or sentimental location for their suicide, they just choose the location that provides the best chance of success. Most families also don’t publicize loved ones’ suicides, since suicide carries a stigma of insanity, unhealthy living and emotional neglect. But in all three of these instances, Moore proved an exception.
Underneath the manila folder containing his suicide notes, Renfro found a second folder with a self-written obituary with a picture of himself taped to it, his final wishes for his memorial service and a list of people to contact, including the 60 Minutes reporter who had interviewed him during his 1995 hunger strike. It conveyed to Renfro that Moore wanted his story shared with the world. So with his widow’s permission, Renfro and his wife made digital copies of Moore’s notes and sent them to local and national media.
“In my own mind,” Renfro said, “I just wanted the story to be out because to me his death was more than just ‘Strange Guy Commits Suicide In Horrible Manner.’”
The folder also contained Moore’s goodbye letter to his wife Barbara. The letter read:
“I know that some people will call me crazy, and accuse me of cruelty to you and the rest of our family, [and] insist that I just wanted attention… but I am also convinced that some will be moved to action… by voting, giving money, demonstrating and so on… I know that our families are going to be deeply hurt by the gruesome choice I have made (especially my grandchildren), but maybe the positive response will make a difference.”
Immediately after his suicide, Barbara fell into a deep depression. Though Renfro and his wife shielded her from media inquiries, the stress and anxiety following Charles’ death worsened her atrial fibrillation and fluctuating blood pressure. Some days she’d break down in tears unexpectedly and apologize for being so weak. One time she passed out at home and had to go to the emergency room. She moved into a senior apartment complex near Austin to be closer to her daughter, but within five months, she too was dead.
Among his final wishes, Moore requested a Presbyterian minister and church to host his memorial service. He had become friends with Lou Snead of Faith Presbyterian Church during the ’90’s while serving at Grace United Methodist Church in Austin. Both churches were about a mile apart and both ministers followed the “social gospel” — the belief that churches should address social problems.
Together, they welcomed poor and LGBT people into their congregations and founded South Austin Assistance Ministries, a poverty assistance group that endures to this day. When Moore retired in 2000, he told his congregation to attend Faith Presbyterian if they found his replacement too conservative — about 15 joined Snead’s church after Moore’s retirement.
While both men shared a social vision, Snead didn’t share Moore’s pessimistic worldview. He agrees that the politics of white privilege, capital punishment and guns are all moving in the wrong direction, but it doesn’t depress him; he just feels more voices need to present an alternative vision of what could be.
Moore, on the other hand, would feel distraught and hopeless after reading about politics and world news; Snead started suggesting that Moore’s wife and in-laws hide the morning newspaper to keep Moore from getting upset. Had Moore lived, Snead says, he probably would’ve found hope in the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders’ proposed economic reforms.
“Like most people, to me this was a tragedy,” Snead says, “that Charles somehow had reached a point where he felt like he could no longer effectively address these ethical moral issues anymore without doing something drastic and ending his life.”
Even though Snead lead Moore’s memorial service, Moore chose all the hymns and eulogists. He also specified that he wanted no talk of the afterlife nor judgements about his death, but rather, he wanted the memorial to celebrate his commitment to social justice. Towards this end, he named Andy Smith, one of his openly gay congregation members at Grace United Methodist, to speak about his LGBT work.
Smith had first come to Moore’s church after hearing about his progressive stances on LGBT issues, but soon learned that they had lots in common: they both grew up in East Texas and both attended Tyler Junior College and SMU. As a founder of the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas (a gay conservative group), Smith began bringing his Log Cabin colleagues to Moore’s church and soon found Moore challenging their views with sermons against the death penalty and in support of transgender rights.
“His sermon about Lazarus coming out of the tomb has stayed with me for more than 20 years and remains the single best sermon I’ve ever heard,” Smith said during his eulogy.
“I remember Charles saying… ‘Lazarus, come out of that cool, comfortable tomb. Be involved in the world and make a difference.’ [Moore’s sermons] made me uncomfortable and eventually caused me to leave the cool, comfortable tomb of ignorance, misunderstanding and retribution in the name of justice…
I’m very sorry that Charles felt he hadn’t done enough to advance the causes that he cared so much about, as I feel that he made a huge difference with me, with Grace, with those issues, and, I think especially as his story is told and more people learn about him… with others too.”
Reverend Jeff Hood, another memorial attendee, had met Moore through the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He felt like most of the ministers and clergy in attendance didn’t know what to make of Moore’s suicide.
“I’m not sure that you could call this a suicide,” Hood says. “I think that Charles felt like he was forced by our society to do this act. He felt like he did not have any other option. So on some level I feel like our society is what killed Charles. You might even be able to call this a murder, a murder at the hands of an evil, unjust and immoral society.”
“I saw it as a very spiritual and beautiful thing,” Hood continues, “but it really kinda terrified [other clergy] and they kinda ran away from it.”
While some expressed guilt over not reaching out to Moore before his death, an older colleague told Hood, “There’s nothing about this to admire. The job of a reverend is to get as many runs batted in as possible, and Charles just struck out.”
Moore probably would have agreed with his colleague. The lack of national response following his death might have exacerbated his feelings of inadequacy. Although nearly 300 people attended his memorial, no local TV stations covered it: neither NBC, CBS, FOX, nor 60 Minutes. He would have gotten more coverage had he done it at SMU, but history is history, and perhaps news coverage is a poor measure of Moore’s influence.
For all his work on racial equality and LGBT rights, the modern day Methodist church also struggles with both issues. A 2008 Church report found Methodists members to be 90 percent White and only 5.8 percent Black — a more than 10 percent deviation from the U.S. Census. In 2009, 23 historically black United Methodist churches closed forever, leaving “fewer than 2,300 black churches in the entire denomination.”
Despite a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, the Church still forbids its clergy from officiating same-sex nuptials, and that’s unlikely to change. A 2012 vote to soften the Church’s stance on homosexuality lost 61 percent to 39 percent with the Church’s large native African contingent voting unanimously against it. The African contingent will comprise 40 percent of the overall church by 2016, the next time they’re likely to reconsider their anti-gay stance.
Some think that only a schism can resolve the disagreement, yet signs of change persist. In 2011, the Church suspended Amy DeLong — an openly lesbian pastor who officiated a lesbian wedding — but they did not defrock her; in fact, they asked her to draft guidelines assisting future ministers with serving their LGBT congregants within the confines of Church law. Similarly, in 2013, the Church denied the ordination of Mary Ann Barclay, an openly lesbian ministerial candidate, and yet, the denomination’s highest court asked the ordination board to reconsider Barclay. Barclay — who now lives as a non-gendered person — was subsequently rejected, but the court’s intercession remains noteworthy.
So while Moore’s death didn’t spark a revolution, it could have planted seeds for other significant changes. “Even if things don’t make national and international news,” Hood said, “you have no idea who you’re going to effect. And if you do affect someone, then maybe your stand is worth it.”
As one of Moore’s eulogists reportedly said: “Charles saw the world on fire and he refused to let it burn.”