In 1965, Viola Liuzzo – a mother of five – paid the ultimate price to march in support of civil rights: her life. She was the only white woman to be murdered during the civil rights movement.
In 1964, Viola joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and took part in the fight for civil rights. She organised Detroit protests and attended civil rights conferences. She watched in horror as Alabama state troopers – armed with batons, bull whips and tear gas – attacked the civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma during “Bloody Sunday.” The state troopers didn’t discriminate, either; the elderly and children received no leniency.1
In the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. issued a call for Americans to join the marchers in Selma, Alabama. “We have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility.” Viola wanted to make a difference and took heed to what he was saying.
Viola was unique to the majority of the other protestors. She was a housewife and mother from a blue-collar family. She had no constituency and no support network. Her daughter, Penny, would later say that she was ahead of her time. Viola was the daughter of a coal miner and had grown up in the South before moving to Detroit.
To those who knew her, Viola was always a free spirit. She married at just 16-years-old and the very next day, she had the marriage annulled. In 1962, Viola was arrested for protesting the fact that women didn’t get overtime or severance pay.
Viola’s children recollected that she was a fun and loving mother who enjoyed planning fun activities for the family and always celebrated the holidays in a special manner. “She was always taking us on hikes to museums and the symphony, and she used to play practical jokes on us. When I was 16, a friend and I were watching horror movies in our basement and she put on this fright wig and black cassock and covered her face with pancake makeup and started banging on the window… We started screaming,” recalled her son, Herrington.2
It was the 21st of March, 1965, when Viola set out from her home in Detroit to Selma, Alabama, to join in the march for voting rights. It was one of the most significant protests in civil rights history. Viola joined 3,000 others as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday, and began the trek towards Montgomery.3
Following the march, on the 25th of March, Viola and a 19-year-old African American activist, Leroy Moton, ferried protestors from Montgomery back to Selma. On their final trip back to Montgomery, they stopped to fill up their car at a local gas station. It was here that they were subjected to a barrage of racist abuse.
Shortly afterwards, while stopped at a red lighted, a car with four members of the Ku Klux Klan pulled up alongside them. Upon seeing a white woman with an African American man, they followed the car as Viola attempted to outrun them.
When the car caught up with Viola and Leroy, they shot directly at Viola, hitting her twice in the head. She veered into a ditch. Viola died there at the scene. The bullets all missed Leroy but Viola’s blood spattered over his body. He lay motionless and pretended to be dead when the Klansmen came over to the vehicle to check both were dead. When the Klansmen left, Leroy ran for help. They were only around 20 miles from Selma.
One of the Klansmen, Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., was an FBI informant who failed to stop the killing.
In an attempt to divert the attention away from Rowe, Viola’s reputation was besmirched by the U.S. government. She was the archetype of everything that the South despised: an independent white woman travelling in a car with an African American man. The FBI accused her of having an affair with an African American, abandoning her family, having needle marks on her arm, and having mental health issues.
In the wake of the murders, Viola’s own family were targeted. They had bricks thrown through the window and a cross was burned in their yard. They received stacks of hate mail. Southern newspapers wrote that Viola got what she deserved. But despite the smear campaign, thankfully Viola didn’t die in vain. Following her murder, President Johnson declared war on the Klan several months after her death and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This gave African Americans in the South the right to vote regardless of whether they could read or not.
“We know she changed the world, and it took a lot of sacrifice, and we are very proud of her,” said her daughter, Sally Liuzzo Prado.
The four Klansmen – Collie Wilkins, William Eaton, Eugene Thomas and Gary Thomas Rowe – were apprehended within 24 hours. Rowe was not indicted and served as a witness. He claimed Wilkins had fired two shots on the order of Thomas. The other men, however, claimed that Rowe had shot the gun. Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas were found guilty of conspiracy to intimidate African Americans – not murder – and sentenced to ten years in prison.
Today, Viola Liuzzo’s name is alongside the 40 martyrs on the civil rights memorial outside Dee’s office. There is also a marker on the road where she was killed.