The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas minister set himself on fire and died to ‘inspire’ justice

Rev. Charles Moore. (Courtesy of the Moore family)

One Monday in June, 79-year-old Charles Moore, a retired United Methodist minister, drove to Grand Saline, Tex., his childhood home town some 70 miles east of Dallas. He pulled into a strip mall parking lot, knelt down on a small piece of foam and doused himself with gasoline.

Then, witnesses said, he set himself on fire.

Bystanders rushed to help, splashing him with bottled water and beating the blaze with shirts. Finally, someone found a fire extinguisher. Unconscious, he was flown to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where JFK died. Moore died that night, June 23.

Moore’s death seemed a mystery. He put a note on his car and left behind letters explaining his act, said a former colleague and relative by marriage, the Rev. Bill Renfro, but his writings were not released for nearly a week. His thoughts are now becoming public.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph obtained a copy of the suicide note from Grand Saline police. In it, Moore lamented past racism in Grand Saline and beyond. He called on the community to repent and said he was “giving my body to be burned, with love in my heart” for those who were lynched in his home town as well as for those who did the lynching, hoping to address lingering racism.

In his letters, obtained by The Washington Post, he called his death an act of protest. He said he felt that after a lifetime of fighting for social justice, he needed to do more.

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

Those who knew him call it a tragedy.

“It would have been nice to have had some sort of counseling, somebody to point out that his life had mattered, that he hadn’t failed,” Renfro told the United Methodist News Service. “He had done plenty.”

Moore had gone on a two-week hunger strike in the 1990s to move the United Methodist Church to remove discriminatory language against homosexuals. While working with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, he stood vigil in front of George W. Bush’s governor’s mansion to protest more than 100 executions. He served in the slums of India, Africa and the Middle East.

Moore had “a conviction that if the Bible stood for anything, it stood for radical inclusiveness,” the Rev. Sid Hall, a former colleague, told the Dallas Morning News. “If you ever were on the side of powerlessness, if you were ever on the margins yourself and were looking for someone to help you, Charles was the person.”

But for Moore, it wasn’t enough.

“I have no significant achievements to offer from that period so that my influence on contemporary issues might have a significant impact,” he wrote, “so I am laying down my life here today, in order to call attention to issues of great human concern.” He seemed particularly disturbed by capital punishment, racial discrimination, prejudice against the LGBT community.

Since his death, some news accounts described him as a man who seemed troubled. One asked if he was a “madman or a martyr.

But Moore seemed to anticipate the response.

“There is one thing I have absolute control over: that is, the manner of my death,” he wrote. “History will decide whether my offering is worthy.”

Moore explained that his death was not an impulsive act, but one to which he had given great thought. Renfro told The Post that Moore left behind a copy of a New Yorker article entitled “Aflame.” It was about the Tibetan Buddhist monks’ protest of China’s domination of Tibet. They, too, set themselves on fire.

“I’m not sure an act like that is as meaningful to other people as he thought it would be,” Renfro said. “I think he became convinced it was an act that would be essential to get the word out. I wish I could have talked him out of it. … I just accept what he did and his reasons and, hopefully, they will have meaning and effect change.”

Moore grew up in Grand Saline, a town he said dripped with racial discrimination — a town the Ku Klux Klan called home. In his letter, he seemed haunted by the past:

“When I was about 10 years old, some friends and I were walking down the road toward the creek to catch some fish, when a man called ‘Uncle Billy’ stopped us and called us into his home for a drink of water — but his real purpose was to cheerily tell us about helping to kill ‘n—–s’ and put their heads up on a pole. A section of Grande Saline was (maybe still is) called ‘pole town,’ where the heads were displayed. It was years later before I knew what the name meant.”

It was this type of racial discrimination that Moore said haunted him.

“I will soon be eighty years old, and my heart is broken over this,” he wrote. “America (and Grand Saline prominently) have never really repented for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermath. What my hometown needs to do is open its heart and its doors to black people, as a sign of the rejection of past sins. … 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.”

Angi McPherson, who witnessed the self-immolation, told the Telegraph she has lived in the town all of her life and she knew there was still a racial divide.

“It’s not as big as it used to be, but it is here. It is everywhere,” she told the newspaper.

The town’s police chief, Larry Compton, told the Telegraph that the preacher’s death disturbed him in many ways.

Grand Saline “might have been that way in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s like a lot of places, but today we are a community of different ethnicities and racial makeups.”

Moore, of Allen, Tex., had a degree from Southern Methodist University and from the Perkins School of Theology at SMU. He served as a minister for half a century. When he retired, he received awards from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, according to a biography provided by his family.