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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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:
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
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 Lilleboe, offers the beginning of
an explanation more rooted in the material reality of workers'
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
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.