Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement have been enshrined in many parts of the country, including on a lonely stretch of highway from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Those who drive that highway today, if they are not in too much of a hurry, can pull off the road and visit a memorial tribute to Viola Gregg Liuzzo. If you are among the many Americans who would ask, “Viola, who?” then there is much you need to learn about this remarkable woman who sacrificed her life in the struggle for equality.

Liuzzo, 39, a student at Wayne State University and the mother of five children, was a white homemaker from Detroit, Mich., who decided to commit herself to the fight against segregation by driving all the way Alabama, even after hearing about the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson and the white Rev. James Reeb. She arrived in Selma just in time to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech on March 25, 1965, which occurred after he had led some 4,000 people on the 54-mile trek to the state’s capital.

She must have been thrilled along with the listeners when King intoned: “However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long. Because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long … because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. How long? Not long. Because mine eyes have the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

After the demonstrations at the Capitol, marchers, including a large number of celebrities, were advised to leave the premises as quickly as possible. Liuzzo, who had taken an incomplete in her classes at Wayne in order to join the march, was among those who volunteered to drive marchers back to Selma. She had made one trip, and with Leroy Moton, a Black man who had proudly displayed the American flag during the march, she headed back toward Montgomery for more passengers.

Driving her 1963 Oldsmobile east on Route 80, Liuzzo was chased by a car occupied by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. They pulled alongside her car, and one of the men shot her twice point-blank in the face. She was dead when her car crashed into a ditch. Moton, aware that the killers were peering into the wrecked car, pretended to be dead. The Klansmen mistook Liuzzo’s blood for Moton’s. When they left, he pulled himself from the wreckage and flagged down a passing motorist, who happened to be another demonstrator.

Later it was disclosed that one of the four men in the car, Gary Rowe, was an FBI informant. For him to have intervened during the shooting, he later said, would have compromised his position as an undercover agent.

Liuzzo’s funeral was held on March 30 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in her hometown. Practically every notable political and labor leader attended the massive funeral services, including Teamsters General President James R. Hoffa, Walter Reuther of the UAW, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and King.

Hoffa said that Liuzzo’s bravery in the face of such danger was what made her similar to other martyrs of the labor movement, like those who died in the Ludlow Massacre, the Pullman Strike and the Homestead Massacre. “She had faith in what she believed and was one of those rare individuals who acted instead of just giving lip service to a principle,” he said.

On Dec. 3, Collie Leroy Wilkins and two other Klansmen were convicted of conspiracy charges in the murder of Liuzzo. They received 10-year prison sentences. A week later, the white men charged in the murder of Reeb were acquitted. In the end, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and especially the murder of Liuzzo, played a significant role in convincing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law Aug. 6, 1965.

In 2004, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Paola di Florio directed “Home of the Brave,” a documentary on Liuzzo done in collaboration with Liuzzo’s children, with Julie Stevens portraying Liuzzo.

Anita Gates, in her review of the documentary in The New York Times, stated, “The documentary includes familiar film of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and of demonstrators in Birmingham being attacked with fire hoses, but it distinguishes itself with a touching film of Jim Liuzzo and his children being interviewed and of political leaders of the day. … In the documentary, Mary Liuzzo follows her mother’s route south and visits the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. The people there certainly know who Viola Liuzzo was and welcome Mary as if she were a Kennedy. Her siblings don’t share the glory, however. After years of investigation, a failed wrongful death suit and efforts to expose the FBI’s smear campaign, two of Liuzzo’s sons have gone underground out of fear of retaliation.”

Activities

  • Find out more: There is so much more to be said about the life of Viola Liuzzo, and that information can be obtained online, in numerous articles and especially in the documentary by Paola di Florio. Here we offer snippets of one review, but it will be rewarding to seek out other reviews and possibly see the film yourself.
  • Discussion: Why Liuzzo chose to do what she did needs to be further understood. Was it because of how she was raised, her religion or her sense of justice and what she felt she could do as one person? It may be worthwhile to ask, was it a wise decision given she was a mother of five children who could possibly be deprived of love and care?
  • Place in context: This was a very dynamic historical period, and it’s useful to study the domestic issues facing Johnson configured with the global situation, particularly the emerging war in Vietnam. What were the president’s feelings about the Civil Rights Movement and the impact of King?

This Week in Black History

  • Oct. 28, 1992: Bill Cosby, opposed to the depiction of Black images in the media, attempted to purchase NBC. That deal was never realized. Ironically, Cosby is a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, which was incorporated on this same day in 1914.
  • Oct. 29, 1931: African-American classical music composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) premiered his “Afro-American Symphony” with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the first such composition to be performed by a major symphony orchestra.
  • Oct. 31, 1831: A captured Nat Turner was turned over to the sheriff on this day and later tried and executed for leading a slave rebellion in Dismal Swamp, Southhampton County, Va.