Viola Liuzzo: ‘We're going to change the world’

By Minnie Bruce Pratt, Workers World, 2 March 2005, 1:49 PM

[Montgomery march]
Women on 1965 Selma
to Montgomery march
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 protesters of all nationalities marched into Montgomery, Ala.—a former capital of the slave-owning Confederacy in the 19th century.

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.

[Viola Liuzzo]
Viola Liuzzo
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.

One of 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 troopers.

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.

Courage 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.

During World 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.

Liuzzo organized 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 Biography)

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 unions.

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 health.

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 public transportation.

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 her.

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.

An 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.

Of the 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 legacy

Liuzzo's oldest daughter, Mary Lilleboe, 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 Democrats 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.

We 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 history.

Di Florio's documentary does not show Liuzzo's vision, or her understanding that the struggle was more than her individual story.

One 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.

The 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.

The Black man turns to the camera and says that he feels that Liuzzo was a fine woman.

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 freedom.