Liuzzo family pushes to strike Hoover name from FBI building

By: - July 16, 2020 6:23 am

The FBI building in Washington, D.C. | Brunswyk, Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

The mere mention of his name evokes a range of emotion that includes sorrow and rage.

“It was horrible what he did to people,” Sally Liuzzo-Prado said about former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in a voice that trembles today as much as it did 55 years ago.

In an interview with Advance, Liuzzo-Prado declared that Hoover engaged in a vicious smear campaign to demonize her late mother, Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist who was murdered in 1965 and is now in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Today, there is growing sentiment to rename the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., that’s named after Hoover, the longest-serving director in the agency’s history.

Viola Liuzzo statue at Viola Liuzzo Park in Detroit | Ken Coleman

Like Liuzzo-Prado, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) supports renaming the building.

“It’s time for his name to come down,” said Lawrence.

She grew up in Detroit during the civil rights era heyday of the 1960s and later worked as a federal postal employee before being elected as Southfield mayor in 2001. Lawrence was elected to the U.S. House in 2014.

J. Edgar Hoover | Wikimedia Commons

Renaming of the FBI headquarters would take an act of Congress and the FBI didn’t return a request for comment. Lawrence wants her fellow D.C. lawmakers to pass comprehensive legislation that reviews the naming process and makes recommendations with respect to all federal buildings and other properties. 

The conservation about FBI headquarters renaming comes as local governments across the country are either considering or have removed statues of controversial figures such as Confederate Army officials or slave owners. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently ordered the renaming of the Lewis Cass office building in Lansing. It’s now known as the “Elliott-Larsen Building,” honoring the legislators who sponsored Michigan’s landmark civil rights act, state Reps. Melvin Larsen (R-Oxford) and Daisy Elliott (D-Detroit).

Cass, a former Michigan territorial governor, U.S. senator and U.S. secretary of state, owned a slave and was the architect of federal policy that forcefully carried out the relocation of Native Americans known as the “Trail of Tears.”

‘It changed our family’

Liuzzo-Prado was 6 when her mother, Viola, was a part-time student at Wayne State University and member of the NAACP. Moved by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s effort to secure voter rights for Blacks in the South, Viola, a mother of five, traveled to Alabama to assist in the effort. 

While there, she was fatally shot on March 25 by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Liuzzo and Leroy Moton, a 19-year African American man from Selma, Ala., were traveling on a dark interstate highway when bullets entered their automobile. Moton survived the incident. Liuzzo died. She was only 39.

VIola Liuzzo and her daughter Sally | Sally Liuzzo-Prado photo

Four members of the Ku Klux Klan were arrested: Eugene Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr., William O. Eaton and Gary Thomas Rowe. It was later revealed that Rowe was an FBI informant. They were acquitted by an all-white jury on state charges; however, Thomas and Wilkins were later convicted on federal charges. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Eaton died before his sentencing. Rowe was granted immunity from prosecution and went into the witness protection program.

Liuzzo-Prado believes that Hoover personally sought to further attack her mother in the days, weeks, and months after Viola’s death. It continued, she said, as the trial against Viola’s killers carried out. Through office memoranda, Liuzzo-Prado recalled, Hoover described Viola as a drug addict and an adulterer who traveled to Alabama because she sexually desired Black men like Moton.

“It changed our family,” Liuzzo-Prado recalled, especially after seeing Viola’s autopsy report. “I don’t think any of us were the same.” 

The Liuzzos wanted closure. Sally’s father, Anthony, and her siblings, Mary, Penny, Anthony Jr. and Tommy, wanted the FBI to take responsibility for Viola’s death.

“They didn’t even take ballistics or fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Liuzzo-Prado said. “How convenient is that? That’s the FBI.”

Many years after Viola’s death, the Liuzzo family sued the federal government. In 1983, they argued that the Hoover-led FBI looked the other way as Viola was gunned down. The family, through their attorney, Dean Robb, argued in federal court that Viola’s blood was on the FBI’s hands because Rowe was a paid informant and the agency knew about the murder plot in advance. However, they lost the case.

Liuzzo siblings with Attorney Dean Robb | Sally Liuzzo photo

Anthony Jr. in 1983 described Rowe as a “demented maniac let loose by the FBI.”

“I’m going to pray for his soul,” he said at the time. “I’m disappointed when our government can hide things and never be called to account.”

Rowe died in 1998.

FBI honored Hoover in ‘72

Hoover led the FBI from 1924 to his death in 1972. 

His notorious counter-intelligence program, better known as COINTELPRO, aimed to silence civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as civil rights organizations including Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Tactics included phony letters, taped conversations, leaks to newspapers, blatant lies, and innuendo. 

Nonetheless, Congress named the FBI headquarters for Hoover in 1972, shortly after he died.

The FBI building in Washington, D.C. | Susan J. Demas

David A. Love, an opinion contributor for The Grio, a national news and entertainment site geared toward African Americans, called Hoover the “consummate enemy of Black America.” 

“His time is up,” Love, a Harvard-trained journalist and adjunct professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, wrote recently.

In 2015, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill to remove Hoover’s name from the FBI building.

“The civil rights we enjoy today are in spite of J. Edgar Hoover, not because of him,” said Cohen at the time. “Yet his name adorns one of the most prominent buildings in our nation’s capital and one that houses one of the agencies of government responsible for justice. Given his well-documented abuses and prejudices towards African Americans, gays, and lesbians, I believe it is past time to remove his name from this place of honor.”

The legislation, however, stalled. Cohen plans to re-introduce the bill, according to spokesperson Bartholomew Sullivan.

Michigan’s U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), said they are open to name change.

Viola Liuzzo statue at Viola Liuzzo Park in Detroit | Ken Coleman

“If legislation is put forward on this in the Senate, Senator Peters will review it,” said Peters spokesperson Nirmeen Fahmy.

Stabenow spokesperson Robyn Bryan said the senator “believes our building and monument names should reflect the best of our country. Whether it’s the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building or other historical names, she will thoughtfully review any proposal and is open to change.”

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), the senior member of Michigan’s congressional delegation, did not respond to multiple calls and emails to his spokesman Josh Paciorek.

Liuzzo-Prado said she and her four siblings would be gratified if the FBI building finally got a name change.

“So I’d be really, really happy if that is done,” she said. “We are all getting old, so it would be great if it happens in our lifetime.”  

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.