My daughter Lauren was about six months old in March 1965 and we lived in Philadelphia. There were a lot of awful things happening then — kind of a storm of shit that battered us those years: including civil rights, Vietnam. That winter, on March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a 40-year-old housewife and voter registration worker from Detroit, was shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan on an Alabama highway. She was registering black voters in Selma with Martin Luther King and she driving a car with a black passenger. That was her offense.
It’s not that any of us knew her personally. But we knew who she was: part of the volunteer cadre of civil rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama who challenged racism, America’s great Original Sin. You probably know that just fifty years ago — my adult lifetime — our country was still segregated racially. It was thoughtlessly, simply, legally, the way things were, and not just in the South.
Anyway, a couple of weeks before the Liuzzo murder Selma police conscripted and deputized all the young white men and town and led them to attack civil rights marchers at the Pettus bridge. the whole world watched and it was a huge outrage.
A few months earlier Mississippi police and the Klan murdered three civil rights workers and buried their bodies in an earth dam. White supremacists bombed a church in Birmingham and killed four little girls. The Freedom Riders and their buses. Martin King. Stokely Carmichael. John Lewis. On and on. And then Viola Liuzzo’s murder, maybe one too many.
I’m going on here, but there are fewer of us now who lived that time and recall what it what it felt like and meant. Imagine that racist whites controlled the government, and that the police were free to beat, imprison and kill. Imagine the heroism of the people who fought back who resisted without weapons or violence. Before myth takes over entirely let me say that the 60s were exciting, and terrifying too. It was Ferguson, Missouri
The Liuzzo story gets worse. In the car with Liuzzo’s killers was an FBI informant, guy named Gary Thomas Rowe. To cover up their involvement in murder the FBI and Director Herbert Hoover trashed the reputation of Viola Liuzzo, leaking that she was a bad mother who abandoned her children to have sex with black men, that she was a Communist, that she was making out with the 19-year-old who she was driving home, that she had a psychiatric history. Lies. But her family, husband, three girls, two boys, were devastated and without recourse. It was twelve years before the damning internal FBI documents
came out and we learned the truth. Gary Rowe, the FBI’s Klan stooge, lived out his life at our expense in the witness protection program. He’s dead now too.
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In November 2014 UC Merced gave its Spendlove Prize for Social Justice to the three daughters of Viola Liuzzo. Their mom, they said, didn’t stumble into civil rights activism. She was a member of the Detroit NAACP, her best friend in Detroit was black and her husband was a UAW union activist. How rare was that? A Ladies Home Journal survey
conducted after her murder reported 55 per cent of American women thought it wrong for a mother to leave her children for a social cause. It wasn’t just black people who needed liberation in 1965 America.
Her kids say she was a good person, an engaged and ‘magical’ mother. Behind the still teary grief is pride. The 2008 election of Obama, one said, was closure for her. “After that every kid in America could look at the White House and say, ‘that could be me.’” But, they told the hundred or so people gathered in Merced, the progress paid for with Viola’s life is being eroded, votes won in blood taken away again.
All three sisters, now in their fifties and sixties, will attend the 50th anniversary next year of the Selma march that brought Viola Liuzzo to Selma.