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A historical marker in Alabama unearths a long-forgotten cold case

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

How many times have you passed a historical marker on the side of the road or stood in front of one on the street and wondered, who writes these things? Who decided this needed to be here? NPR has spent the past year examining the stories these markers tell. We've found they've spread hate, they've spread joy, and even on occasion, they've unlocked secrets. As part of our ongoing series "Off The Mark," NPR's Laura Sullivan brings us this report from Alabama about a place where a man was killed on the edge of a dusty two-lane highway and then forgotten.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If you're heading out to see a historical marker, there's a good chance you're getting in a car, because for more than a century, the side of the road has been one of the most popular places to put them. And there's also a pretty good chance, like on a recent day with Jerry Smith, you're heading out to a place noting where someone died.

JERRY SMITH: Do you want to go kind of north?

SULLIVAN: Let's start chronologically where you first saw him.

SMITH: I'm going to go further than that. I'm going to go to the place that got his a** killed.

SULLIVAN: Smith pulls his car onto U.S. 11 just a few miles outside Gadsden, Ala.

What is Gadsden known for?

SMITH: Not a damn thing.

SULLIVAN: But that's not entirely true - at least not anymore. Because just a little bit down this road is a brand-new square metal sign that says otherwise. It's a story that began 61 years ago when a teenage Smith was driving down this very road.

SMITH: And the car I was driving when all this happened was a real classic. It was a 1962 Chevrolet Corvair. You know what that is? You want to know this kind of stuff?

SULLIVAN: I think so. I do. I want to know everything.

It was a spring afternoon, 1963. Smith spotted a strange man walking with a sign, pulling a wagon. Smith remembers not liking the sight of him. He could tell the man wasn't from here. He was what Alabama's then-Governor George Wallace had warned about.

SMITH: His favorite term was outside agitators. If they would leave us alone in Alabama, everything is fine. But these outside agitators are fanning racial fire. Well, it was George Wallace that was fanning racial fire.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

SMITH: But, you know, early on, I might have been a little too dumb to know that.

SULLIVAN: As he slowed down to pass the man, Smith was surprised to see he looked just like any other guy. The two locked eyes. Smith thinks the man may have even smiled a little. So when just a couple hours later, someone shot the man in the face and throat and left his body on the side of the road, Smith was deeply troubled.

SMITH: And there was a lot of people that thought, this guy walking down the road, pulling a buggy - we didn't need him. And there were some people that - that guy's - he's not fit for being here. We ought to kill him, you know?

SULLIVAN: The guy's name was William Moore. He was a postal worker from Baltimore, who Smith correctly deduced was walking across Alabama as part of a one-man civil rights protest. His sign read, equal rights for all. His murder's never been solved - at least not officially. It bothered Smith for years. But what bothered him more was the silence.

SMITH: The years passed by, other things happened. This lost significance in the eyes of Alabamians.

SULLIVAN: Smith wondered, what could he do? And then one day, as he was driving, it dawned on him.

SMITH: I thought at least we ought to have a plaque.

SULLIVAN: Now, Smith isn't the first to have this idea, of course. The reality is anyone can put up a marker, and we found all kinds of people have - so far, at least 35,000 different groups and individuals throughout the country. And sometimes the result is as funny as it is strange. Three separate states have markers claiming to have discovered anesthesia. Kentucky and Missouri both claim to be the home of Daniel Boone's bones. Michigan and Alabama both claim to be the home of the first western Railroad, while Maryland and New Jersey both claim to have sent the first telegram. The country also has at least 14 markers to ghosts, two witches, one vampire, a wizard, and a spot a Mississippi marker says two men were taken to an alien spacecraft. Arizona, on the other hand, marks a man the local town wrongly hanged for stealing a horse in 1882. It says he was right. We was wrong. Now he's gone.

There are markers to world-famous soda water, cantaloupes, roofing slate, mustard, frozen custard, beef jerky, something called bourbon ball candy. These are not to be outdone by the world's best cheddar cheese, hobby garden, seed rice or even the world's greatest waterfall, harbor, gold mine, battleship, oil field, rodeo clown, roller coaster, or chicken. In the 20th century, historical markers were a way to capture the attention of traveling Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The real expert is the one who takes the time to discover America.

SULLIVAN: Many had hit the road for the first time in their new cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: East or west, north or south.

SULLIVAN: Markers brought business and tourism to out of the way towns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Isn't America wonderful?

SULLIVAN: But as the decades passed, markers have also become symbols of the country's complicated past, telling history the way the writers wanted it told or sometimes never told at all, like who actually killed William Moore outside Gadsden.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR KEY TURNING)

SMITH: We're at the site of the assassination.

SULLIVAN: Smith walks over to the new black and gold marker on a gravel patch between the road and the train tracks.

SMITH: Well, let's see.

SULLIVAN: (Reading) William Lewis Moore was a white postal worker raised by grandparents in rural Mississippi. He was assassinated at this location during a 400-mile protest march from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Smith circles around back to make sure the marker's holding up. When he first pitched this idea, he says people in town didn't like it. Let the past lie, they said. One person even messaged him on Facebook saying it might be dangerous, but he just kept talking about it, calling people. Then he went and made a speech in front of the county commission, and they voted unanimously to pay for it. On the day it was unveiled, several dozen people came out in the rain to see it. Someone's even left flowers at the base.

SMITH: Here comes the train.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

SMITH: This is Norfolk Southern, main line.

SULLIVAN: The train barrels through just like it did when William Moore pulled his wagon down this road. Except now his death is no longer a community secret. It's history - public history. It says so, right here on the sign. And ever since it went up, something strange has started to happen. People started talking about the murder, and Smith says he'll tell me what many people here have known for decades.

SMITH: This was a store.

SULLIVAN: He stops in front of an abandoned old building.

SMITH: And here was a confrontation between Floyd Simpson and William Moore.

SULLIVAN: Floyd Simpson confronted William Moore in this parking lot. You can hear lots of people talk about it now - at the diner, the town museum, even the local sheriff's office.

JOHNNY GRANT: He's the one that everyone thought did it - thinks did it.

SULLIVAN: Johnny Grant is the county's assistant sheriff. He's spent the last 48 years in law enforcement here. He's never talked about Simpson publicly before. On the night of the murder, he hadn't joined the department yet, but some of his closest friends were on duty. He says they all suspected Floyd Simpson. Grant even quietly reinvestigated the case when he became chief investigator to see if more could be done. But Simpson was already dead. He died 26 years ago.

GRANT: Everything I've seen, he was Klu Klux Klan.

SULLIVAN: Floyd Simpson was?

GRANT: Floyd was - Simpson was.

SULLIVAN: And you saw that in the records?

GRANT: I did.

SULLIVAN: The whole idea wasn't too much of a stretch. First, there was the public confrontation. Then a witness saw what looked like Simpson's Buick sitting on the side of the road just before the murder. And then a state forensic technician said he believed the bullet matched Simpson's gun. But the grand jury declined to indict him, and the town put the whole thing behind them.

GRANT: Evidence to me, I would have charged him, and I would have been able to charge him now many years later. But, you know, they took it to the grand jury.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GRANT: And the grand jury refused to indict him.

SULLIVAN: Today Grant is also an Etowah County commissioner. When Jerry Smith came forward one day asking for marker money, Grant quickly voted yes.

GRANT: That was just hate.

SULLIVAN: Grant says he thinks the marker is one of the best things the county has done.

GRANT: t'll always be a black eye to Etowah County. I just hope law enforcement did everything they could to solve it.

SULLIVAN: Now that black eye is on the side of the road for everyone to see, but it is also a symbol of change and like tens of thousands of markers across the country, its own piece of the American story.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.