Jim Crow Museum
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Big Rapids, MI 49307
On March 16, 1965, Viola Liuzzo left Detroit, Michigan to take part in the voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama. For a little over a week prior to her departure from Detroit, Liuzzo was terribly disturbed by the news coverage she had seen of the violent "Bloody Sunday" attacks on protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7 (Mendelsohn, 1966, p. 182). Liuzzo participated in demonstrations through the streets of Detroit and on the campus of Wayne State University in a show of support for the rights of those who had been attacked. However, as a woman who possessed strong convictions and a demonstrated willingness to take action for causes she believed in, Liuzzo was convinced that she had to actually join the fight in Selma. Thus, Liuzzo headed south on a journey that would ultimately end in tragedy and controversy (Stanton, 1998, pp. 132-142).
In Alabama, Liuzzo joined thousands of fellow protestors in the first leg of the historic Selma to Montgomery march on March 21. However, state officials only allowed 300 marchers to continue the journey along the section of Highway 80 known as "Big Swamp" where the road narrowed from four to two lanes, and Liuzzo was not among the chosen group. Instead, she served at the Brown's Chapel hospitality desk in Selma until she rejoined the selected group on March 24 at City of St. Jude just inside the Montgomery city limits, where she provided first aid to many of the marchers (Stanton, 1998, pp. 158-164). While waiting for the final leg of the march to start on the morning of March 25, Liuzzo had a premonition that somebody was going to be killed that day; she thought it might even be Alabama Governor George Wallace. After spending time in prayer, Liuzzo felt better and joined a swelling crowd of thousands of protestors who triumphantly walked to the steps of the capitol building (Mendelsohn, 1966, p. 184).
After the rally at the capitol ended, Liuzzo returned to City of St. Jude where she met up with Leroy Moton, a young civil rights worker who had been using Liuzzo's car to shuttle marchers back and forth between Selma and Montgomery. Liuzzo drove a group of marchers and Moton to Selma, where Moton retrieved a set of keys for another car in Montgomery that was to be used to transport additional groups of marchers. Liuzzo offered to drive Moton back to Montgomery and to bring any remaining marchers back to Selma before leaving for Detroit. Just after 7:30 p.m., Liuzzo and Moton stopped alongside another car at a traffic light near the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the beginning of their return trip to Montgomery. Tragically, Liuzzo's morning prediction of murder was about to become reality (Stanton, 1998, pp. 169-170).
The car next to Liuzzo's at the traffic light carried four Klansmen who had taunted the voting rights marchers in Montgomery earlier in the day and then drove to Selma looking to cause some trouble. When they spotted a white woman driving a car with a young black male passenger, the Klansmen decided to follow and attack Liuzzo and Moton. On a stretch of Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery, the Klansmen pulled alongside the driver's side of Liuzzo's car, and at least two of the Klansmen fired their guns at Liuzzo and Moton. Liuzzo was struck in the head killing her instantly and causing her car to veer off the road (May, 2005, pp. 156-162). Surprisingly, Moton was not hit by any of the shots, and he was able to gain some control of the car as it left the road and came to rest against a fence in an adjacent field. Covered in Liuzzo's blood, Moton pretended to be dead when he saw the lights of the Klansmen's car coming back so the shooters could check their results. Satisfied that both occupants of the car were dead, the Klansmen drove away. Moton then left Liuzzo's car and ran along Highway 80 toward Montgomery trying to get help. He eventually flagged down a truck carrying a load of marchers, got a ride back to Selma, and reported Liuzzo's murder (Mendelsohn, 1966, p. 185).
The murder of a civil rights worker in Alabama in 1965 without any witnesses who could identify potential suspects would have normally required a lengthy investigation that may or may not have been done with any real interest in identifying the killers or making any arrests. However, this case was different because one of the Klansmen was a paid FBI informant who contacted his handling agent shortly after the shooting to tell the agent what had happened. As a result, all four Klansmen were arrested the morning after Liuzzo's murder. Collie Leroy Wilkins, William Orville Eaton, and Eugene Thomas faced both state murder charges and federal charges of depriving Viola Liuzzo of her civil rights. The fourth Klansman, Gary Thomas Rowe, who was the FBI informant, was given immunity in exchange for his testimony (May, 2005, pp. 156-171).
The ensuing state and federal trials produced only limited justice. Held first, the state murder trials of Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas revealed the local citizens' contempt for the Civil Rights Movement and its advocates. Rather than trying to prove their clients were innocent, defense attorneys offered lengthy diatribes about the ills of integration and questioned the character of Liuzzo and the prosecution's key witnesses, Rowe and Moton. The defense tactic worked; juries composed entirely of white men from the surrounding communities acquitted Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas (May, 2005, pp. 211-250). In federal court, the result was different. The three Klansmen were found guilty of depriving Liuzzo of her civil rights, and they were sentenced to the maximum of ten years in prison. Eaton, however, died before beginning his sentence (Stanton, 2007).
Viola Liuzzo's murder prompted a variety of responses from both the government and the American people. President Lyndon Johnson ordered an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan and petitioned Congress to make it legal to file federal murder charges against killers of civil rights workers. Additionally, Liuzzo's murder, like James Reeb's murder in Selma only two weeks prior, increased support for the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed and President Johnson signed into law in August 1965 (Stanton, 2007). At the same time, Liuzzo and her family were smeared by the FBI, Selma officials, and the media. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attempted to divert attention from the fact that Rowe had tipped off his handler that there might be trouble the day before Liuzzo was killed. Hoover created a file depicting Liuzzo as an unstable woman with unsavory motives and also painted her husband, Jim, who was a member of the Teamsters union, as a thug. Hoover had his agents leak these reports to the media, who ran numerous articles questioning Liuzzo's character and reasons for being in Selma. Additionally, Selma Sheriff Jim Clark obtained and widely shared a file, known as the Lane Report, from the former chief of detectives in Detroit, who also questioned Liuzzo's mental stability. Stanton (1998) states, "The Lane Report, bolstered by J. Edgar Hoover's self-serving portrayal of Mrs. Liuzzo as a drug-taking middle-aged adulteress with a black teenage lover, set her reputation in stone" (p. 110). Finally, at a time when gender roles and stereotypes reflected and reinforced considerable gender inequality in American society, many Americans, both men and women alike, believed Liuzzo should have stayed home and tended to her family rather than advocating for voting rights for blacks (Stanton, 1998, pp. 94-110).
Despite the attempts to destroy her character, Liuzzo has received deserved recognition for the sacrifice she made. Liuzzo's name was added to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery in 1989. Additionally, "[i]n 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'" (Stanton, 2007). Vandals have desecrated the highway memorial marker multiple times, including an incident in 1997 where someone painted a large Confederate flag across the face of the stone (Stanton, 1998, after p. 126). However, they can never destroy the legacy of a passionate, caring woman who gave her life for the rights of her fellow humans.
Jim Crow Museum February 2013
May, G. (2005). The informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the murder of Viola Liuzzo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Mendelsohn, J. (1966). The martyrs: Sixteen who gave their lives for racial justice. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Stanton, M. (1998). From Selma to sorrow: The life and death of Viola Liuzzo. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Stanton, M. (2007, October 24). Viola Gregg Liuzzo. In Encyclopedia of Alabama online. Retrieved from http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1377.
Viola Liuzzo Video