Remembering the assassination of Floyd Hoard, 50 years later

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Floyd Hoard, a prosecutor in Jackson County, was assassinated Aug. 7, 1967. AJC file

Note: A postscript from former Gov. Roy Barnes has been appended to the bottom of this column.

This August will be bookended by tributes to Georgia public figures who died at the hands of assassins.

Invitations are already going out for the Aug. 28 unveiling of a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the state Capitol — the first of many events leading up to next April’s 50th anniversary of his death.

A much smaller ceremony will be held at the historic Jackson County courthouse this Monday evening, to mark the 50 years that have passed since Floyd Hoard, the local prosecutor, went out on the morning of Aug. 7 and cranked the ignition on the family’s new Ford Galaxy.

Investigators would later say that between six and a dozen sticks of dynamite had been wired to the car. Hoard, a 40-year-old father of four, was killed instantly. Ultimately, five members of the “Dixie Mafia” would be convicted of the murder.

We tend to think of the ’60s as a period of urban unrest, fueled by an unpopular Vietnam War and a civil rights movement that had achieved a crescendo of influence.

But the ’60s were also the high-water mark for a brutal period of lawlessness in the rural South, an era of white-on-white crime built around moonshine, pot, car thefts and truck hijackings. And a great deal of local government corruption.

“The Dukes of Hazzard,” bless its TV soul, was the cleaned-up, cartoon version. The assassination of Floyd Hoard was the real thing — and something to keep in mind a half-century later as we ponder what abandonment of the rule of law might look like.

In this September 1967 photo, a month after the murder of her husband, Imogene Hoard is circled by her four children. From left: Vivian, 7; Richard, 14; Peggy Jean, 16; and Claudine, 9. Charles Bennett/AJC staff

I was at a breakfast haunt in Sandy Springs last week with two of Hoard’s children. Vivian Hoard arrived first. She was the youngest, 7 years old, when Time and Newsweek magazines featured her father’s obituary. As we waited for her brother, Vivian explained that she’s also the only member of the family who lives close by. The girl whose father was blown up in her own front yard was warned against moving to metro Atlanta. The place was too dangerous, she was told.

Richard Hoard, 64, arrived from Watkinsville a few minutes later. He is an author and pastor of the Oconee River Methodist Church in Athens.

Stereotypes do not apply to the siblings. Richard is tall and imposing. He was closing in on 15 years old when his father died, and a family photo taken soon afterward shows a teenage boy of fierce intensity.

But it was Richard who chose religion and forgiveness, and baby-faced Vivian who followed her father’s footsteps and became a prosecutor, under Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton. (She’s now a tax litigator with the Atlanta firm of Taylor English Duma.)

“We had very different childhoods. I was raised by a single mom who cried all the time and made minimum wage,” said Vivian, nodding to her brother. “Daddy put bad guys in jail. It seemed to be a good living. They need to be in jail. So that’s what I wanted to do.”

“I considered (law school) briefly and went to seminary instead,” said the brother.

“He’s forgiving. I wanted to put the crooks in jail,” the sister interjected.

“I wanted to help people heal,” he said.

“You can’t help people heal until you get rid of the cancer,” she answered.

And a cancer it was.

Running from Atlanta into South Carolina, I-85 was a pipeline of temptation for what headline writers dubbed the Dixie Mafia. “It was a loose confederation of criminals. It wasn’t a structural organization, per se,” Charles Stone, who worked the area as a GBI agent from 1973 to 1999, would later tell me. “It was a wild and pretty violent place up there.”

Well before Floyd Hoard arrived, Jackson County was known as a hotbed of crime and corruption. Carl Sanders, whose term as governor had ended in early 1967, had issued an executive order giving the GBI original jurisdiction in the county. Meaning that the agency need not wait for an invitation from the local sheriff — who was not to be trusted.

Floyd Hoard, who had played a year of University of Georgia football before leaving for World War II, was elected solicitor general in 1964. His father-in-law was the mayor of Jefferson, the county seat. His brother-in-law was the police chief.

Floyd Hoard was an upright man. In May 1967, he worked with GBI agents and raided a moonshine warehouse owned by A.C. “Cliff” Park. Three months later, Park purchased Hoard’s life for $5,500.

“I was there. Vivian and her older sister were at my aunt and uncle’s house in Haddock,” Richard said.

“They had sent us away, I guess, expecting something,” Vivian said.

The brother continued. “My mother was supposed to take me and my sister Peggy — she had just turned 16, and she was going to go to Athens to get her driver’s license,” Richard said. “They were going to put me on the bus to go down to Haddock. My mother was going to drive us. She was supposed to take that car.

“My dad had a court case. He was going to present evidence to the grand jury that morning. He had all his stuff in the car. Just a creature of habit, he went out to crank it up,” Richard said.

Then came the explosion.

“They didn’t care who was getting in the car. That’s what’s so bizarre to me,” Vivian said. “Four percent of the population are sociopaths. That’s my favorite book, ‘The Sociopath Next Door.’ It’s the key to life and everything — when you can’t understand how people behave, just read that book.”

Her older brother had another view. “I see it as a systemic evil. It’s not one person who could do it. It had to be a team that could do it,” Richard said.

Gov. Lester Maddox sent an army of GBI agents into Jackson County.

Park, 77, who ordered the killing, was convicted of murder and given the death penalty — which was commuted to life when Georgia’s capital punishment law was declared unconstitutional. Four others were also convicted: J.H. Blackwell had wired the bomb to the car. Lloyd Seay and George Ira Worley had purchased the dynamite. Douglas Pinion was the bagman.

The Hoard family never lived in that home again. But there is no shelter from a crime committed by one’s neighbors.

“You talk about small-town stuff. You know everybody,” Richard said. “The fall after Daddy was killed, before they caught the five men, I went to a Georgia football game with a man who was a kind of booster club guy.”

Richard sat in the back seat with a friend, Mike Beatty, who would later become a state senator.

“There was a man sitting in the front seat, and he turned out to be one of the five,” Richard said. “Never said a word the entire trip.”

It was Doug Pinion. Richard’s roommate at the University of Georgia would be Pinion’s nephew.

“They were just as ashamed of their relatives as we were,” Vivian said. She bought her first set of wheels from a nephew of one of the killers. Which killer, she can’t remember, but no one forgets a first chariot: Hers was a Nissan pickup.

Two of the murderers were ultimately paroled — and came to bad ends. Seay died in a gunfight. Blackwell would be found in the burnt-out hulk of a car.

Park would die behind bars, but not before an extended illness. Which prompted another small-town story.

“They had taken him to the hospital at one point. I walked right in to see him. This man that I wanted to kill, I walked right into his hospital room. Nobody stopped me. Nobody was in there with him,” Richard said.

“He could have pulled his plug,” his sister added.

“I could have,” the brother agreed. “But by then — symbolically, I laid it down.” Richard was 20 years old when that happened.

He would later put his decision to forgo revenge in a 2007 book, “Alone Among the Living: A Memoir of the Floyd Hoard Murder.” But forgiveness isn’t necessarily a path to The New York Times best-seller list.

Back in 1967, five days after Floyd Hoard died, bootleggers in west Tennessee targeted the sheriff of McNairy County in similar fashion. Buford Pusser survived, but his wife didn’t.

It was Pusser’s “Walking Tall” tale of revenge that became larger than life, not the memory of Floyd Hoard.

There is another footnote to this tale: One of the members of the grand jury that indicted Hoard’s killers was a young man named Lauren “Bubba” McDonald.

McDonald made an unsuccessful 1990 bid for governor and is now a member of the state Public Service Commission. But in 1974, he was a fresh-faced member of the state House of Representatives. And Jackson County was still corrupt.

McDonald authored a local bill that put into law what Governor Sanders had done by executive order. McDonald’s legislation gave the GBI original jurisdiction in Jackson County. It’s still on the books, McDonald told me late last week.

Of 159 Georgia counties, Jackson County is the only one where the GBI needs no invitation to do what needs to be done.

***

Postscript: I don’t usually do this, but this particular column has quickly resonated among the generation of Georgia’s political class that came of age in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

And so I add this note received Saturday morning from former Gov. Roy Barnes of Marietta:

Jim:

I enjoyed your story about Floyd Hoard. This murder has a Cobb County connection.

 

When Floyd Hoard was killed, Gov. Lester Maddox appointed Solicitor General Emeritus Luther Hames of Cobb County (before he became a superior court judge) to prosecute Cliff Parks and the others.

 

I was studying at the University of Georgia and went every day to watch the trial in Jefferson. Daddy told me to go to school and not to go watch the trial, but it was something else, especially since I knew Luther Hames.

 

Lloyd Seay turned state’s evidence and testified against Parks. My recollection is that Bob Hightower, who would later become Cobb Director of Public Safety and colonel of the State Parol under me, was the GBI agent who investigated the case.

 

Later, when I started practicing law, Jim Seay, Lloyd’s daddy,  hired me to defend the bootleggers in north Georgia when they got caught.

 

When I was in the General Assembly, Luther Hames called me to his office one day, and said that he wanted me to take a letter and talk to Governor [George] Busbee about paroling Lloyd Seay –since he had turned state’s evidence.

 

I took the letter to Busbee and told him Luther Hames wanted to talk to him about having Lloyd paroled. Lloyd was paroled, but one of the conditions was that he could not return to his home in Dawson County, which was the center of liquor-making in those years. Lloyd started a grading business in Cobb County, and I represented him when he needed to file a lien or collect some money.

 

One day, Lloyd came to see me about some business matter and he had this little squirrelly fellow with him. I talked to Lloyd alone, and told him that fellow looked strange to me.

 

Lloyd, who was quite a man physically, said, “Don’t worry. He works for me, and is okay.” I don’t know if Lloyd had been in prison with him, but I expect he had been.

 

A few weeks later the squirrelly fellow shot and killed Lloyd. Lloyd was taken to Dawson County and buried, the only way he could go home.

According to the archives of the AJC, Seay was killed in 1991.


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