Viola Liuzzo: 'We’re going to change the world'
Published Mar 2, 2005 1:49 PM
After years, decades, centuries of
struggle, the Black civil rights movement celebrated one of its greatest
triumphs on March 25, 1965. On that historic day, some 25,000 pro testers of
all nationalities marched into Montgomery, Ala.--a former capital of the
slave-owning Confed eracy in the 19th century.
Women on 1965 Selma to
The protesters were
completing a four-day march from Selma, Ala. An attempt to march the same route
earlier in the month to protest the Feb. 18 killing of African American
voter-rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson had been met with intense repression. On
Sunday"--March 7, 1965--Alabama state troopers on horseback had tear-gassed and
mercilessly clubbed 600 women, men and children as they marched peacefully
across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
After this outrage, civil-rights leader
the Rev. Martin Luther King sent out an appeal across the country for all who
supported the African American freedom movement to come to Selma.
the thousands who answered that call was Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white woman
from Detroit. On the evening of March 25, as she was ferrying an African
American marcher back to his home in her car, a carload of Ku Klux Klan members
forced her car off the road, shot and killed her.
Liuzzo was the only
white woman to give her life during the Black civil-rights movement of the
1960s. With that sacrifice, she joined a handful of white men, like the Rev.
James Reeb, killed in Selma earlier the same month.
She also joined the
hundreds of thousands, the millions, of known and unknown Africans and African
Americans who had fought and died for their freedom---from the 40 who fell in
battle against South Carolina slave owners at Stono River in 1739, to Jimmy Lee
Jackson. Jackson, a 27-year-old farm laborer and pulpwood cutter, who was shot
down on Feb. 18, 1965, at a voter-rights protest in Marion, Ala., as he
attempted to protect his mother and grandfather from the clubs of the state
A recently released film, "Home of the Brave," dir ected by
Paola di Florio, attempts to document Liuzzo's life and legacy. It does give a
glimpse into the background of this almost unknown anti-racist fighter, but
without fully exploring all the forces that shaped her.
in the struggle
What experiences led Liuzzo to reject
racism and segregation, and to journey South into struggle?
She was born
in 1925 into a coal-mining family in Pennsylvania. Her father made 50 cents a
day when he could find work. He received no compensation from the mine owners
after he lost a hand in an accident. As the family quickly sank into poverty and
moved from town to town through Tennessee and Georgia, Liuzzo saw firsthand the
violence and degradation of racism toward African Americans.
War II the family moved North to find jobs. Her father worked at a bomber plant
in Ypsilanti, and her mother at a Ford plant in Detroit. Liuzzo found wartime
work in a cafeteria, married, and became close friends with Sarah Evans, an
African American woman through whom she joined the NAACP.
locally for an end to discrimination in education and for economic justice. She
was arrested twice and insisted on a public trial to bring attention to these
causes. (Joanne Giannino, Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist
According to Liuzzo's daughter, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, "My
mother was raised in the South and she followed the whole labor story." She
noted that the FBI files from the investigation of Liuzzo's death show Liuzzo
wrote letters "to protest the government's witch-hunt of the labor
Liuzzo resisted her oppression as a woman as well. When she went
back to school as a high-school dropout, working-class housewife and mother of
five, she wrote, "I protest the attitude of the great majority of men who hold
to the conviction that any married woman who is unable to find contentment and
self-satisfaction when confined to homemaking displays a lack of emotional
After the death of one of her children at birth, she broke with
the Catholic Church because it decreed that unbaptized babies spend eternity in
"limbo." She joined a local Unitarian Universalist Church where many of the
members had been Freedom Riders in an earlier struggle against segregation in
In an interview, Evans later said of her friend:
"Viola Liuzzo lived a life that combined the care of her family and her home
with a concern for the world around her. This involvement with her at times was
not always understood by her friends; nor was it appreciated by those around
Smearing a radical
After Liuzzo's death, the FBI under
J. Edgar Hoover began a smear campaign against her. She was red-baited and
accused of sexual immorality, in particular with African American men.
FBI informant, Gary Rowe, was implicated in her death. He was in the car on the
night of her killing with Klan members subsequently charged with her murder. The
three Klansmen were acquitted by the state, but later served 10-year federal
sentences for violation of Liuzzo's civil rights. Rowe was never charged for any
crime and escaped into the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Liuzzo documentary, director di Florio observed: "I experienced my own loss of
innocence. It hadn't occurred to me before making this film that reckless
collection of data, inconsistent accounts of the incident, and flat-out lies
about Viola Liuzzo could all be part of 'official documents.' As I began to meet
with leaders in the field of government, politics and history, I realized that
this was quite common, in fact. What happened to Liuzzo could happen to any of
us." (Emerging Pictures)
Di Florio's film shows Liuzzo's life and also
focuses on her legacy. Unfortunately, the documentary dishonors Liuzzo's
sacrifice by implying that her death and the smear campaign that followed
somehow led her sons down a reactionary path. The youngest, Tony, became second
in command of the Michigan Militia. The oldest, Tommy, joined white
"survivalists" in Alabama. The film shows an effigy meant to represent an
African American hanging from a noose in their campground.
This is truly
heart-wrenching information, given that one of the most touching scenes in the
documentary is the TV footage shot immediately after Liuzzo's death, when
14-year-old Tommy says to reporters, "She wanted equal rights for everyone, no
matter what the cost!"
But the film doesn't explore the larger economic
and social factors that inexorably shape the lives of every child in her or his
own historical period, no matter what their parents' politics.
Liuzzo's oldest daughter, Mary Lille boe, offers the beginning
of an explanation more rooted in the material reality of workers' lives: "The
issues we face are well beyond the immediate. Both the Demo crats and
Republicans are capitalist and are wrong. I know this lesser-of-two-evils
argument and I think it is very narrow in its vision....
"We saw what the
government was capable of doing when it felt threatened by what my mother stood
for. The organizations that were supposed to defend workers did nothing. The
militias developed because workers, like our family, were abandoned.
need something new. Socialism is a dirty word in this country because it
threatens people at the top. I don't think it's an accident that people today
are attracted to my mother's story."
Liuzzo herself was full of hope, and
conscious that the future would include more than just her story. According to
Sarah Evans, Liuzzo would often say: "Sarah, you and I are going to change the
world. One day they'll write about us. You'll see."
It is worth noting
that "Home of the Brave" gives no details of Sarah Evans' political life or
Di Florio's documentary does not show Liuzzo's vision, or her
understanding that the struggle was more than her individual story.
scene from the documentary captures the necessity of the continuing fight to
secure the most basic democratic rights for oppressed nationalities in the
United States. At a voting site in Selma during the 2000 election, a Black poll
worker sits at a table side by side with an older white poll worker.
latter is asked what he remembers of Viola Liuzzo, and answers after a sour look
that he doesn't think a woman like that should have come to Selma.
Black man turns to the camera and says that he feels that Liuzzo was a fine
And one image of Liuzzo lingers in the mind's eye: a photograph of
her in the line of march, a few miles from Montgomery. She is walking
barefooted, carrying her shoes, looking ahead, completely focused on the goal of
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