Remembering Viola Liuzzo: Michigan Civil Rights Activist

April 10, 2015

Fifty years ago, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit, was shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen on an isolated road outside Selma, Ala. 

It was an ugly end to a beautiful life.

Born in Pennsylvania and reared in Michigan during her teen years, Liuzzo long harbored both a deep concern for those around her and a deep sense of social justice. Liuzzo—who was honored with a posthumous honorary doctorate degree from Wayne State University on Friday—not only organized for education reform and economic justice in Detroit, but was known as standing “always for the underdog.”

She once gave a co-worker her two-week paycheck after the woman was deprived severance pay and lost her job for it. Another time, Liuzzo raised money to buy toys for a family whose Christmas tree burned to the ground. And after the one-time WSU student joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Detroit, becoming one of its few white members, Liuzzo threw herself headlong into the civil-rights movement.

Not long after joining the NAACP, Liuzzo saw a newscast that showed police beating civil-rights activists during “Bloody Sunday” and heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for “clergy of all faiths” to join him in Selma. Determined to help, Liuzzo drove to Alabama to stand in solidarity with protestors. Soon, Liuzzo—who will also be remembered at a reception at the ACLU of Michigan headquarters on Monday at 3 p.m.—was providing first aid and shuttling civil rights activists to and from airports, buses and hotels throughout the march.

Then on March 25, 1965, Liuzzo paid the ultimate price.

Returning to Selma that day, basking in the glow of the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., Liuzzo and civil-rights worker Leroy Moton suddenly found themselves being pursued by a car carrying four Klansmen. Not long after the chase along the Alabama back road began, the Klansmen’s car pulled alongside Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile and gunmen fired two shots. Liuzzo, who was driving, was struck twice in the head and killed instantly.

Word of her killing galvanized other activists across the country and became impetus for the passage of the landmark Voters’ Rights Act in 1965.

Meanwhile, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, Liuzzo’s family stepped up its fight for justice for her murder. After learning that one of the Klan members in the car was an FBI informant, the family sued the FBI in 1977, contending that the informant could’ve saved Liuzzo’s life but instead essentially conspired to murder her. Two years later, the ACLU sued the FBI on the family’s behalf.

Even though a racist state court system in Alabama allowed Liuzzo’s killers to beat murder charges, three of the men in the car were eventually convicted on federal charges of conspiring to intimidate the demonstrators. (The informant was never tried.)

While Liuzzo’s death was marked as much by controversy as it was tragedy, her life and her work continue to serve as a beacon of inspiration and courage for the many social-justice proponents who’ve succeeded her.

Her daughter, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, may explain Viola Liuzzo’s legacy the best: "She wasn't a leader, a speaker, an organizer or a motivator, although she could have done all of those things,” said Liuzzo Lilleboe. “She took her place among the 25,000 on March 25, 1965—and then took her place in history forever.”

By Sarah Goomar

Related Issues: