Liuzzo, Viola Fauver Gregg

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Liuzzo, Viola Fauver Gregg

Civil Rights activist and martyr Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo was murdered after the 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama. A thirty-nine-year-old wife, mother, and student, Liuzzo had spontaneously driven from her home in Detroit to help with the historic march. While transporting other participants back to Selma afterward, she was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The tragedy both shocked and inspired U.S. citizens. President lyndon b. johnson decried her slaying on national television, and her death gave impetus for passing the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.). Two Alabama juries failed to convict her assassins, who were ultimately found guilty of conspiracy. Nearly two decades later, her family brought an unsuccessful $2 million lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), following congressional revelations that the bureau may have known about but done nothing to stop Klan plans to kill the marchers. Liuzzo's memory is honored by memorials in Alabama and commemorations in Detroit.

Liuzzo was born in the coal-mining town of California, Pennsylvania, on April 11, 1925. She dropped out of school in the tenth grade and worked as a waitress. In 1950, she married Anthony James Liuzzo, a business agent of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with whom she had three children.

Liuzzo returned to school and, in 1962, she graduated with top honors from the Carnegie Institute of Detroit. She found employment as a medical laboratory assistant. Though a high school dropout, she loved reading, and introduced her children to the works of the philosopher Henry David Thoreau. She explained to them his theory of civil disobedience, a concept that would find widespread support during the Civil Rights Movement.

Despite her lack of formal education, Liuzzo won acceptance to Wayne State University. By 1965, she was studying Shakespeare and philosophy. Like other students across the United States, she became increasingly concerned about violence against civil rights workers. The civil rights movement was at a crossroads: it had achieved important gains against desegregation, but now it faced resistance and violence as it sought to win voting rights for African Americans living in the South. In early March 1965, a pivotal event in civil rights history pushed the movement forward and changed Liuzzo's life. The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of Alabama troopers had motivated civil rights leaders to stage a protest march from Selma, Alabama, to the capitol in Montgomery, fifty miles away. The march would be led by martin luther king, jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Ralph J. Bunche, an African American Nobel laureate and diplomat to the United Nations; and other dignitaries. Once at the capitol, they planned to confront Governor george wallace, an unbending foe of Integration. But, as in previous civil rights protests, Wallace's state troopers struck first. On March 7, hundreds of African Americans set out from Selma, only to be stopped minutes later by club-wielding police officers and troopers. As law enforcement officers beat men, women, and children, millions of horrified U.S. citizens watched on television. Liuzzo and her family were among the viewers.

Within days, protests erupted nationwide. In Washington, D.C., some six hundred people picketed outside the White House. In Detroit, Liuzzo joined 250 students in a march on local FBI offices. Wherever protests occurred, people demanded federal protection for civil rights workers and the passage of new voting rights legislation. King announced a new march from Selma to Montgomery. Before it could begin on March 9, federal judge frank m. johnson, fearing new violence, postponed it. Two days later, another civil rights worker—the Reverend James J. Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston—died at the hands of violent whites in Selma.

On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on television to address both houses of Congress. He called for passage of the voting rights bill and also gave his full support to the marchers in Selma. That night, Liuzzo attended a meeting at which several Wayne State students said they would join the march. She too decided to go. She packed a few clothes in a shopping bag, and by the next afternoon was driving south.

Liuzzo was one of thousands arriving at the church that served as the launching point for the march, Brown Chapel. Appointed to the reception desk to help with last-minute chores, she greeted new arrivals. As was her way, she wanted to do more, and soon she had volunteered the use of her car for transporting others. On March 21, the journey to Montgomery began as marchers passed a vast contingent of federal security. Governor Wallace had ruled out protecting the marchers as being too expensive, but President Johnson had made available military police, FBI agents, u.s. marshals, and nineteen hundred members of the Alabama National Guard who were placed under federal control. There was to be no repeat of the violence committed two weeks earlier by Alabama troopers.

The five-day march ended in a gathering of twenty-five thousand people at the capitol in Montgomery, where King once again preached his doctrine of nonviolence. Yet he warned of further struggles ahead.

"It's everybody's fight. There are too many people who just stand around talking."
—Viola Liuzzo

Now that the march was over, Liuzzo prepared to make good on her promise of driving people back to Selma. Staff members of the SCLC advised her that further help was unnecessary, given the buses already waiting. Liuzzo nevertheless drove three women and a man to their destination and by nightfall, was returning to Selma again, this time with nineteen-year-old Leroy Moton, an African American barber and civil rights worker. In the swamplands of Lowndes County, a car chased them down and its occupants shot and killed Liuzzo. Moton, covered with Liuzzo's blood, feigned death and then ran three miles before finding safety with other civil rights workers.It took the FBI eight hours to arrest three suspects, all Klan members. Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., a thirty-four-year-old Klan member who had been passing information to the FBI for five years, was riding with three others in the car from which the fatal shots were fired. Immediately, the state of Alabama indicted the other three men on first-degree murder charges. Rowe was given Immunity and put in Protective Custody in return for testifying against Eugene Thomas, age forty-three; William Orville Eaton, age forty-one; and Collie Leroy Wilkins, Jr., age twenty-one. According to Rowe's subsequent testimony, the men had received instructions from Klan leaders to punish one of the marchers.

A trial on state charges in May 1965 ended in a mistrial. However, a subsequent federal trial, based on a conspiracy to violate Luizzo's civil rights, brought guilty verdicts. Each of the defendants was sentenced to ten years. A subsequent appeal failed.

In 1979 the Liuzzo family filed a $2 million lawsuit against the FBI. The suit accused the bureau of Negligence in its hiring, training, and supervision of Rowe. The informant, it alleged, was a loose gun who had actively participated in the murder. U.S. district judge Charles Joiner heard the trial without a jury and on May 30, 1983, found that Rowe did not shoot Liuzzo. He further ruled that the government was not responsible for her death.

In 1982 the Detroit City Council honored Liuzzo for her contributions to the struggle for civil and Human Rights. In June 1982, a mayoral proclamation made June 1–8 Viola Liuzzo Commemoration Week. Other memorials followed. In 1985, nearly one hundred marchers led by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, president of the SCLC, retraced the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march and laid a wreath at the site where she was murdered. There along U.S. Route 80, beside a swampy stretch, stands a simple stone marker, dedicated in 1991 by women members of the SCLC. It reads, "In Memory of Our Sister Viola Liuzzo Who Gave Her Life in the Struggle for the Right to Vote."

Further readings

Gentry, Curt. 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets. New York: Norton.

Powers, Richard G. 1987. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press.

Siegel, Beatrice. 1993. Murder on the Highway: The Viola Liuzzo Story. Four Winds Press.

Stanton, Mary. 1998. From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.