Madman or Martyr? Retired minister sets self on fire, dies

Published on Tuesday, 1 July 2014 22:40 - Written by KENNETH DEAN kdean@tylerpaper.com

Graphic copy alert: Accompanying this story is an image of Charles Robert Moore's suicide note, provided by Grand Saline Police. It contains graphic language.

GRAND SALINE – A 79-year-old Methodist minister who died after setting himself on fire on a busy street in this town of about 3,100 residents left behind a suicide letter asking the community to repent for its racism.

Charles Robert Moore, who had addresses in Allen and Sunnyvale, drove to Grand Saline on June 23, parked his vehicle in a Dollar General lot in the 500 block of East Garland Street, doused himself in gasoline and committed self-immolation, Police Chief Larry Compton said Tuesday.

“I have never seen anything like this in my entire career in law enforcement, which includes my years as an arson investigator for the Mesquite Fire Department," the 66-year-old chief said. 

Horrified witnesses ran to the man and tried to put out the fire. Another witness then arrived with a fire extinguisher. 

"They got the fire put out, and the man was transported to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where he later died of his injuries," Compton said.

Moore put a typed suicide note on his car windshield before he set himself on fire, the chief said.

In the note, which Compton provided to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Moore – who is white - stated he was born in Grand Saline and grew up around racial discrimination.

His letter claimed that the community shunned blacks and resorted to violence, including hangings, burnings and decapitations.

"I will soon be 80 years old, and my heart is broken over this,” Morris wrote. “America, and Grand Saline … 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.”

Moore wrote that visions of violence haunted him greatly.

"So at this late date, I have decided to join them by giving my body to be burned,” he wrote. “With love in my heart not only for them but also of the perpetrators of such horror ... " 

Morris signed the letter, which was dated June 23.

Angi McPherson, 44, was working in the Sophistikutz hair salon when she saw the man walking around the parking lot. 

"He had been walking around the parking lot for a while, but he didn't seem like anything was wrong,” Ms. McPherson said. “After awhile we saw him grab something square (police report would show it was a 2-by-3-foot piece of foam) and knelt down. Then we saw him grab a gas can and begin pouring something all over him. We were like, ‘Is that gas?’”

Ms. McPherson said she will never forget the next few moments.

“He suddenly burst into flames, and he stood up and started screaming,” she said. “One of the guys ran and tried to put him out with his shirt, while my boyfriend ran to him with a fire extinguisher and finally put him out.” 

Ms. McPherson called the incident troubling. 

"I have never seen anything like that, and it was like watching some kind of a horror movie. Who sets them self on fire?" she said.

Compton said the preacher’s death disturbed him. He added that while Grand Saline might once have been racially divided, today it is a community of acceptance.

"It 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," he said.

According to citydata.com, whites compose about 76 percent of the population, while Hispanics make up about 21 percent. The black population – at 20 people - numbers fewer than 1 percent.

Ms. McPherson said she has lived in the town all of her life and she knew there was still racial divide in the small community.

"It's not as big as it used to be, but it is here. It is everywhere," she said. 

 By comparison, the East Texas town of Gilmer, which has about 5,000 residents, is 65.3 percent white, 15.7 percent Hispanic and 15.5 percent black.

Of Gladewater’s population of about 6,500, about 76 percent are white, 15 percent are black and 5.1 percent are Hispanic.

Mineola has a population of about 4,500, of which about 61 percent are white, 23.4 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Blacks compose about 10 percent of Winnsboro’s population of about 3,250, with whites numbering at about 84 percent and Hispanics at 4.3 percent.

According to the U.S. Census bureau’s figures, Texas’ population in 2013 was about 26.4 million, with the nation at 316.1 million.

The state’s population was 80.6 percent white, compared to 77.9 percent nationally. Blacks numbered 12.3 percent for Texas and 13.1 percent for the United States. Hispanics numbered 38.2 percent for the state and 16.9 percent for the nation.

James Chase Sanchez, a Texas Christian University Rafford Research Fellow working on his doctorate in racial rhetoric, said self immolation is the second most symbolic form of suicide only behind self-crucifixion. 

"When someone sets themselves on fire in order to commit suicide, they have something to say," he said.

Sanchez said he is from Grand Saline and knows there is a history of racism in the town.

"We all want to think that there is no racism among us today and that any racism is on an individual level, but our past memories can affect us as a community,” he said. “Everyone in Grand Saline knows there is a history, but no one wants to talk about it."