Viola Liuzzo died on March 25, 1965.
She was murdered by the Klan outside of Selma, Alabama.
I wrote about her on International Women’s Day several years ago and was somewhat surprised at how many bloggers had never heard of her. Then I realized how old I am and that she has been gone 50 years. Since the anniversary of the Selma march and her murder is coming up, it seems like a good day to remember Viola and what she did.
Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo was born in Pennsylvania in 1925 and moved with her family to Chattanooga when she was six. Her father had been a coal miner. He made .50 cents a day when he could find work. He lost his hand in a mining accident and was not compensated by the coal company. The family quickly sank into poverty, moved to Georgia and eventually returned to Tennessee.
Viola saw first hand the violence and degradation of racism in America.
The family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan during the war where her father found work in a bomber plant. Viola got a job in a cafeteria where she became close friends with Sara Evans, an African American woman and member of the NAACP.
Viola, having lived in the South and seeing Jim Crow first hand joined the NAACP. Viola had dropped out of high school after only one year and had married at 16. The marriage lasted less than a year. She married again in 1943. This marriage would last 7 years and produce 2 children. Eventually she married Anthony James (Jim) Liuzzo, a Teamsters Union business agent with whom she had three more children.
So here we are in the ’50s – Viola is a high school drop out three times married twice divorced mother now working as a medical technician and a card carrying member of the NAACP.
Liuzzo organized locally for an end to racial discrimination in education and for economic justice. She protested what she considered to be the government’s witch hunt against labor unions.
Liuzzo resisted her oppression as a woman as well. When she went back to school at Wayne State University as a working-class housewife and mother of five, she wrote, “I protest the attitude of the great majority of men who hold to the conviction that any married woman who is unable to find contentment and self-satisfaction when confined to homemaking displays a lack of emotional health.”
Viola was horrified at the news reports of the aborted civil rights march over the Edmund Pettis bridge, which became known as Bloody Sunday, on March 7, 1965. Some 600 marchers had attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery to protest the Feb. 18 killing of African American voter-rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson. Alabama state troopers on horseback had tear-gassed and mercilessly clubbed the 600 women, men and children as they marched peacefully across the bridge.
After this outrage, Martin Luther King sent out an appeal across the country for all who supported the African American freedom movement to come to Selma.
One of the 25,000 who answered that call was Viola Liuzzo, the now 39-year-old white high school drop-out from Michigan.
The Rev. James Reeb had just been murdered when Liuzzo arrived in Selma. Cars displaying swastikas drove by marchers constantly. White locals made obscene gestures at white women marchers walking next to black men.
The drive to Selma took three days. Liuzzo presented herself at the Roy Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church, “Brown Chapel,” and volunteered to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was asked to serve at the hospitality desk, welcoming and registering other volunteers. On Sunday, March 21, she joined 3,000 other marchers as, five abreast, they marched across the Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday, and began the trek towards Montgomery. On Monday and Tuesday she continued her work at Brown Chapel’s registration desk and also made shuttle runs from the airport to the marchers’ campsite. Afterward she served at the campsite’s first-aid station.
Brown A. M. E. Church, Selma – A national historic landmark
After the march concluded on March 25, Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American helped ferry marchers home between Montgomery and Selma in her 1963 Oldsmobile. As they were leaving Selma and returning to Montgomery to pick up another car load of marchers a car tried to force them off the road. The car with four Klan members then pulled up alongside Liuzzo’s car and shot directly at her, hitting her twice in the head, killing her instantly. Her car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence. Although Moton was covered with blood, the bullets had missed him. He survived the attack.
On March 29 the NAACP sponsored a memorial service at the People’s Community Church in Detroit. Fifteen hundred people attended including Rosa Parks.
Viola’s funeral was held at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Detroit. Martin Luther King was there as was Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Teamster Union President Jimmy Hoffa, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther and the Michigan Lt. Governor William Milliken.
Although her husband was Catholic, Viola herself was a practicing Unitarian. A bronze plaque honoring her was placed in the church’s Boston headquarters on Beacon Street.
Within 24 hours, the FBI had taken four suspects into custody and President Lyndon Johnson praised the Bureau for its excellent work. Nine days later, all charges against one of the suspects, Gary Thomas Rowe were dropped. He was identified as a paid undercover FBI informant who would testify for the prosecution.
While Liuzzo was being honored as a martyr, Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover was increasingly concerned about the embarrassing fact that Rowe had telephoned his FBI contact on March 25 and received permission to “work” during the march despite his history of violent behavior toward civil-rights activists. Rowe had participated in the beatings of freedom riders in Birmingham in 1961 and was suspected of involvement in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
In order to deflect criticism, Hoover shifted the focus of the national news coverage from the FBI to Liuzzo’s motivation for joining the march. He consistently referred to her as an “outside agitator,” and a “communist”. She was a “drug addict”. Hoover also suggested that Liuzzo and Moton had stopped for a romantic interlude. Hoover instructed FBI staff to leak his speculations to the bureau’s Klan informants, who subsequently leaked them to the press. Liuzzo was widely portrayed in the media as an unstable woman who had abandoned her family to cause trouble in the South.
Hate mail flooded her family’s Detroit home, accusing her of being a deranged communist. Crosses were burned in front of the home. Her husband, Anthony Liuzzo Sr., had to hire armed guards to protect his family.
Hoover was much more interested in Martin Luther King than Klan activities.
FBI informant, Gary Rowe, was implicated in her death. He was in the car on the night of her killing with Klan members charged with her murder. The three Klansmen were acquitted in Alabama by all-white juries but later received 10-year federal sentences for violation of Liuzzo’s civil rights. None served more than six. Rowe was never charged for any crime and escaped into the Federal Witness Protection Program. No one was ever convicted of Viola’s killing.
The 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo engaged the nation in a heated debate about a woman’s obligations to her family and to society at large. Liuzzo had violated traditional cultural boundaries to demonstrate on behalf of black civil rights, a movement that a majority of white Americans at the time believed was too aggressive.
It took almost a quarter century to formally recognize Liuzzo’s efforts. In 1989, she became one of 40 civil-rights martyrs whose lives were commemorated on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. She is the only white woman so honored.
March 25, 1965 · Selma Highway, Alabama
“Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a housewife and mother from Detroit, drove alone to Alabama to help with the Selma march after seeing televised reports of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was driving marchers back to Selma from Montgomery when she was shot and killed by a Klansmen in a passing car.”
Inscription on the Alabama State Capitol Civil Rights Memorial
In 1991, the Women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference erected a stone marker on Highway 80 at the spot where she was murdered. It is inscribed “In memory of our sister Viola Liuzzo who gave her life in the struggle for the right to vote March 25, 1965.”
It is generally considered that Viola’s death and the subsequent announcement by President Lyndon Johnson on national television that the authorities would find her killers helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her case also strengthened the Freedom of Information Act; the FBI tried to hide her case files for years before a lawsuit to make them public.
In the America of 1965 and indeed today, Viola would be considered by many as a “nobody” – a person of no consequence – a three times married twice divorced high school dropout.
But she had a moral compass.
I was a soldier in 1965. I have no hesitation in saying I would not have gone to Selma unarmed.
Viola was not one of the “leaders” we remember. She did what she could. Manned a hospitality desk and first aid station. Drove people around in her car. Marched.
Viola was one of the brave unknown foot soldiers in a titanic struggle.
She was braver than I.
Sarah Evans, Viola’s closest friend and guardian of her children after her death recounted that Viola would say: “Sarah, you and I are going to change the world. One day they’ll write about us. You’ll see!”
You were right Viola. We remember you. Your name is forever carved in granite in Montgomery and in bronze in Boston.
Viola was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things