Viola Liuzzo, a Civil Rights Martyr, 1965

Viola Gregg Liuzzo was a Catholic, and later Unitarian, activist in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She finished her studies to become a medical laboratory assistant, before enrolling in Wayne State University in 1963. Viola was a 39-year-old middle-class, white mother of five children and married to Anthony Liuzzo, an official with the Teamsters union and lived in Detroit, Michigan.

Liuzzo was a member of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She spent some of her youth in Tennessee and Georgia and knew firsthand about the racial injustices that African Americans often suffered in the South.

She was motivated to join the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the marchers after seeing televised footage of hundreds of peaceful protestors being clubbed and tear-gassed by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” She listened to the plea from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and decided to drive to Selma, Alabama from Detroit to join in the Selma to Montgomery march. This was the campaign for voting rights for African Americans in the South, led by Rev. King on March 21, 1965. The National Guard and the U. S. Army were called in to protect the civil rights activists. Upon their arrival in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech on the steps of the state capitol to a crowd of around 25,000 people.

Viola called home at 8 pm to let her family know how joyful the day had been. In addition to the march, Liuzzo helped drive supporters between Selma and Montgomery. After King’s speech, Viola called home at 8 pm to let her family know how joyful the day had been. She volunteered to drive another SCLC civil rights marcher, Leroy Moton, an African American teen back to Selma. As they were driving on Highway 80, a car with KKK members pulled up alongside Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile and a passenger in that car shot Viola in the head. The car careened off the road into a ditch and Moton either passed out or played dead until the other car left the scene.

The second phone call to the Liuzzo house that night was not joyful news. James Liuzzo was told that his wife was fatally shot while driving Leroy Moton, an African American teen back home to Selma.

President Lyndon Johnson quickly responded within 24 hours of Viola Liuzzo’z murder. He called for a televised press conference to announce the arrests of the KKK members- Eugene Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins, Jr., William Orville Eaton, and Gary Thomas Rowe. He also demanded an immediate Congressional investigation of the KKK. Rowe was a protected paid informant of the FBI and testified against the KKK men. Despite eyewitness testimony and ballistics evidence, the KKK members were all acquitted in the Alabama courts. However, they were found guilty of violating Viola Liuzzo’s civil rights by a grand jury and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Liuzzo’s funeral in Detroit was attended by many dignitaries, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  However, after her death, her reputation was slandered and many false accusations about her morality, drug use, and dedication to her family ensued.  As a result of these accusations, the Liuzzo children were taunted and threatened. A cross was burned on their lawn and round-the-clock protection was needed for the next two years. Years later in 1978, documents were released through the Freedom of Information Act and it was discovered that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover masterminded this smear campaign.

Viola Liuzzo became a martyr of the Civil Rights Movement, and the only white woman murdered during this struggle. It is believed that her death was not in vain and helped spark the passing of the Voting Rights Act five months later. She received many posthumous awards, including the prestigious Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award. Finally, in 2015, Wayne State University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, the university’s first posthumous award.

It may seem like this chapter in our history has gathered many layers of dust. Yet, today, we see the dust storm once again swirl around voting issues in the South and beyond, it is time to shake the dust from our sandals and continue the journey for justice.

– Jean Santopatre, Pastoral Associate