Viola Liuzzo: she died in the pursuit of justice, equality, and voting rights for others. Her story should be known.
With the recent passing of the great John Lewis, much has been made of the 1965 marches in Selma, Alabama, and the attacks of “Bloody Sunday.” It is right that we give this event ample attention, and we all should be educated about it. However, I fear there are a lot of people and much of the story that is being overlooked.
Viola Gregg Liuzzo was born in Pennsylvania in 1925. Her family was extremely impoverished, as her father had lost his hand in a factory accident. Steady employment was tough to find during the Great Depression, and the family moved around often so that Viola’s mother could find work as a teacher. They lived in several different places in Georgia and Tennessee. In fact, Viola never started and ended the school year in the same place. But, during this time she saw the cruelty of the Jim Crow south up close, and it forever left a mark on her.
When she was 16, Viola eloped. It didn’t work out well and within a year she returned to her family, which moved to the Detroit, Michigan area.
She would get married two more times, and ultimately have five children.
She also would begin working for both the N.A.A.C.P. and the S.C.L.C. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). She helped organize and participate in protests of the treatment of African Americans in the Detroit area.
Viola arranged care for her children, and informed her husband she was going to Selma. 25,000 other Americans also went to help.
She spent four days working at aid stations for the marchers. When the march ended on March 25, 1965, she used her Oldsmobile to give rides and help marchers return from Montgomery to Selma.
Four Klansmen were driving around looking for someone to make an example of. They pulled up next to a white woman with Michigan plates on her car with a black man in the passenger seat.
It turns out that one of the four men in the car was working as an F.B.I. informant. F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover knew this looked extremely bad, so he tried to distract attention away from this fact by creating a smear campaign against Viola. It was leaked to the press that she was a heroin addict who was in Selma to have “sex with negroes.”
When the autopsy was performed it revealed no drugs in her system, nor that she had recently had sex. This did not stop local hate groups and media from continuing to spread these false narratives. Rather than being hailed as the hero she was, Viola was scorned by many. They also tried to make her out to be a bad and irresponsible mother because she left her kids to go to Selma.
Three of the murderers later went on trial. They were convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, but only served six. The F.B.I. informant testified agains the others, and spent the rest of his life in the witness protection program.
It took a long time Ms. Liuzzo to get any portion of the credit she deserved for her compassion and courage.
She is amongst the 40 people honored at the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. She is the only white woman to receive this honor.
She has a statue at a park in Detroit, and there is now a marker in the highway where her murder took place.
If for some reason you still haven’t found the inspiration to vote……..do it for Viola.
For Viola and far too many others the cost was the exact opposite.
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