The third civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama finished up on March 25, 1965. The fight for civil rights for black Americans had taken a serious turn and many from the northern states had come south to help the cause. Viola Liuzzo was one of these people and this is her story.
Viola was born April 11, 1925 in California, Pennsylvania. Her mother was a teacher and her father worked in the coal mines. Viola had one sister. After an accident in the mine that blew off one of her father’s (Heber) hands, the family was forced to move around the southern states so her mother Eva could find work. Being raised in the south during the depression left the family desperately poor and living in one room shacks with no running water. Much of her young life she was exposed firsthand to the unfair treatment of African Americans in the south. The blond haired, blue eyed beauty witnessed horrific acts against the black community drastically shaped her activism as she became an adult.
The series of events began the winter of 1965 as, “The organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee conducted a series of non-violent marches and mass meetings” through out the south. (Staff, 2018) Marion, Alabama is a speck of town, with a population of 3800 people. It is most famous for two reasons; it is the birthplace of Coretta Scott King and Bloody Sunday.
Bloody Sunday began on February 18, 1965 when the peaceful protests of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNVCC) were met with the Alabama state troopers and Marion police. The police beat the protesters killing one Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson was a youth leader who was killed as he tried to protect his mother and grandfather from police brutality. After dying from his injuries in a hospital in Selma, supporters took his body and laid it on the steps of the state capitol building.
On March 7, 1965 the first of the marches between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama began at the Chapel A.M.E. church in Selma. It began with 300 people marching to the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Along the way the group gathered another 300 people. By the time they crossed the bridge, they were met with the violence of vigilante groups, and the Alabama State police. The violence was filmed and featured on national television. It became an important piece of evidence in passing the ‘Voting Rights Act of 1965’.
In 1965, Viola was married to her second husband James Liuzzo. They lived in Detroit, Michigan where he was a Teamster’s union business agent. She had two children from her first marriage and three with James. Viola had gone down the path of many women in the 1960’s by going back to school. She attended Carnegie Institute to become a medical technician. Afterward she continued to take college courses at Wayne State University.
Viola was an activist at heart and by 1964 had drawn the attention of the FBI. She protested the Michigan State Dept. of Education for their lax attitude to students dropping out of school. In protest she pulled her children out of school and was arrested. She once wrote a letter to the Detroit Free Press calling out the government for its attacks on Teamster President, Jimmy Hoffa. She was active in the NAACP with civil rights issues. This was due in part to her own experience growing up in the south, and her close friendship with a woman named Sarah Evans.
Viola, like the rest of the U.S. was horrified by the images of police brutality against black Americans in Selma on bloody Sunday. After a protest at Wayne State University on March 16, 1965, she called her husband and told him she was going to Alabama. She left her children with family and friends, contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They gave her the job delivering aid, recruiting volunteers, and transporting people (both volunteers and marchers) to and from airports, bus terminals and train stations. She used her own Oldsmobile to drive back and forth.
At the end of the third march on March 25, 1965 she was transporting people between Selma and Montgomery. Viola was travelling with Leroy Moton a 19-year-old black man, which in the south was scandalous in 1965. They were driving along highway 80 and a car with several white men tried to force them off the road. Later as they were getting gas, the same car came by yelling profanities at the two. Finally, as the pair drove on, the same car came up next to them and saw a white woman with a black man. They shot her in the head killing her instantly. Viola’s car veered off into a ditch. The men came to the wreckage and investigated the scene. They thought there were two bloody dead people, so they drove away. Leroy played dead as the men were walking around. He flagged a car down and escaped the crime uninjured. It turned out the men were Ku Klux Klan members.
In the car with the Klan members was an FBI informant. He immediately called in the crime and named the other men. Gary Rowe (34) had been an FBI infiltrator to the Klan for years. He also named, Eugene Thomas (42) and William Eaton (41). The two men were arrested for the murder of Viola Liuzzo. The FBI trying to cover its tracks so they would not be seen as participating in her murder tried to defame her. The broken glass from the gunshots imbedded in her arm. They tried to say the wounds were needle marks and that she used heroin. They also tried to say she abandoned her family and was sleeping with black men. Unlike the men who died during the civil rights movement and seen as heroes, Viola was scrutinized and accused by the initial investigation.
Her death so impacted the nation, that President Lyndon B. Johnson went on T.V. expressing his outraged at her death and promising her murderers would be brought to justice. At her funeral in Michigan, she finally got her hero’s reward. In attendance were Martin Luther King, Jr, Jimmy Hoffa, William Milliken, Roy Wilkins, and Walter P. Reuther.
Gary Rowe had been an informant for the FBI since 1960, reporting on the Bessemer Klavern (a unit of Klansmen). Since he was in the car with the murderers they were captured quickly. All including Rowe were tried and acquitted of her murder but found guilty of violating her civil rights.
This case drew attention during the 1980’s. Viola Liuzzo had notified Birmingham, Alabama FBI Bureau Office that racially motivated violence was imminent, and the FBI did not take any action. Two civil rights workers (Bergman and Peck) sued the U.S. government for being assaulted during their participation in the Freedom Riders demonstrations based on this knowledge. Viola’s family also sued the federal government, but the courts found in favor of the US government.
The US Congress created the Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail in 1996 along Highway 80. “This included a marker memorializing the life of Viola Liuzzo.” (Fritzler, 2008) Montgomery Alabama has a civil rights memorial and Viola Liuzzo’s name is included on the monument. In 2015 she was given an honorary doctorate degree by Wayne State University and she has a memorial statute in Detroit.
Staff, (1965), Viola Liuzzo Murder, FBI Vault, https://vault.fbi.gov/
Fritzler, Eric, (2008), Viola Liuzzo Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, http://reuther.wayne.edu/files/UP001745_.pdf
Staff, (2018), Selma to Montgomery, NPS.gov, https://www.nps.gov/semo/learn/historyculture/bloody-sunday.htm
Stanton, Mary (2004). "Viola Liuzzo and the Gendered Politics of Martyrdom: From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo", Harvard Women’s Law Journal, pp26
Kneebone, John, (2015), Mapping of the second Ku Klux Klan 1915-1940, Virginia Commonwealth University, https://labs.library.vcu.edu/klan/learn
Spratling, Cassandra (1965-03-25), Wayne State hails civil rights icon Viola Liuzzo as hero, Freep.com, https://www.freep.com/story/life/2015/04/10/viola-liuzzo-wayne-state-university-honor/25603257/
Carter, Evan James (July 23, 2019), Statue unveiling honors civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo, The Detroit News, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2019/07/23/statue-unveiling-honors-civil-rights-martyr-viola-liuzzo/1806348001/