Viola Liuzzo

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Viola Liuzzo
Viola Liuzzo.jpg
Born (1925-04-11)April 11, 1925
California, Pennsylvania, United States
Died March 25, 1965(1965-03-25) (aged 39)
Lowndes County, Alabama, United States
Occupation Housewife, civil rights activist

Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965) was a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan, who was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama. One of the Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant.12

Liuzzo's name is one of those inscribed on a civil rights memorial in the state capital. She died at the age of 39.

Family life

Viola Gregg was born in California, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the age of six. Having grown up the majority of her childhood and adolescence as a poor white southerner in Tennessee, Viola experienced the segregated nature of the South from a very young age. This would eventually have a powerful impact on Liuzzo’s decision to work as an activist. A Tennessee native himself, Viola’s father, Heber Gregg, was a World War I veteran, who later found work in Pennsylvania as a coal miner. There he met and married Viola’s mother, Eva Wilson, and had Viola, and her younger sister Mary, five years later. While on the job, Viola’s father was permanently injured, and no longer could provide for his family. The Greggs became solely dependent on his wife’s income. Work was very hard to come by for Mrs. Gregg, as she could only pick up sporadic teaching jobs that were always short-term positions. The family quickly became poor, and decided to move in pursuit of better job opportunities. 3

The Gregg family eventually moved south to Tennessee during the Depression, where Viola’s family experienced extreme poverty, such as living in shacks without plumbing. It was during these formative years Liuzzo realized the unjustness of segregation and racism, as she and her family lived in conditions similar to that of many African Americans, yet her family was still afforded better social privilege due to Jim Crow laws.4

In 1941, the Viola's family moved to Ypsilanti, where her father sought a job assembling bombs at the Ford Motors Company. It was here where Liuzzo’s stubborn, strong-willed nature is initially exemplified, as she dropped out of high school after one year, and eloped at the age of 16, but divorced within later. Two years later, her family moved to segregated Detroit. At the time, Detroit was a city that had dangerous riot breakouts due to tension between whites and blacks. Witnessing these horrific ordeals was a major motivator that influenced Liuzzo’s future civil rights work.5

In 1943, she married George Argyris. They had two children, Penny and Evangeline Mary, and divorced in 1949.6 She later married Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamsters union business agent.67 They had three children: Tommy, Anthony, Jr., and Sally.6

Liuzzo sought to return to school, and attended the Carnegie Institute in Detroit, Michigan. She then enrolled part-time at Wayne State University in 1962.6

In 1964, Liuzzo began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, 4605 Cass Avenue, Detroit, Michigan, 48201-1256, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).6

A large part of Viola’s activism, particularly with the NAACP, was due to a close friendship with an African-American woman, Sarah Evans. After initially meeting in a grocery store where Liuzzo worked as a cashier, the two kept in touch. Evans eventually became the housekeeper of Liuzzo, while still maintaining a close, friendly relationship in which they both shared similar views and support for the civil rights movement. In the aftermath of Liuzzo’s death, Evans would go on to become the permanent caretakers of Liuzzo’s five young children. 3

Liuzzo so passionately believed in the fight for civil rights, that she helped organized Detroit protests, attended Civil Rights conferences, and worked with the NAACP. Liuzzo believed in her strong desire to make a difference on as big a scale she could. 4

Activist causes

In addition to fully supporting the civil rights movement, Liuzzo was also notable for her protest against recently passed laws that allowed for students to drop out of school in an easier manner. Liuzzo firmly disagreed with this law, as she knew first hand the harsh consequences of such a decision. Liuzzo withdrew her children from school in retaliation to the new law, and homeschooled them for two months. Liuzzo was arrested for this act of protest, but did not waiver from her protest, and plead guilty in court. Liuzzo was placed on probation. 3

Death and funeral

Liuzzo was horrified by the images of the aborted march on March 7, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge which became known as "Bloody Sunday." Nine days later, she took part in a protest at Wayne State. She then called her husband to tell him she would be traveling to Selma, saying that the struggle "was everybody's fight."

Liuzzo decided to take the fight to Selma, the current center of the civil rights movement. Leaving her husband and children in the care of her family and friends, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference took on Liuzzo, and tasked her with delivering aid to various locations, and recruiting and transporting volunteers and marchers.3

After the march concluded on March 25, Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American, helped drive local marchers to African American colleges and to their homes in her 1963 Oldsmobile. As they were driving along Route 80, a car tried to force them off the road. A car with four Klan members then pulled up alongside Liuzzo's car and shot directly at her, hitting her twice in the head, killing her instantly. Her car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence.7

The four Birmingham chapter Ku Klux Klan members had traveled to Selma for the purpose of interfering with the campaign, even at the cost of murder. They believed the loudest message conveying their views be sent if they killed a non-southern activist, in order to discourage future outside supporters. Their opportunity for such action took place when they came upon Liuzzo and Moton.4

Although Moton was covered with blood, the bullets had missed him. He lay motionless when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. After the car left, he began running for the next half hour looking and searching for help, and eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley that was bringing civil rights workers back to Selma.

Liuzzo's funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church on March 30 in Detroit, with many prominent members of both the civil rights movement and government there to pay their respects. Included in this group were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins; Congress on Racial Equality national leader James Farmer; Michigan lieutenant governor William G. Milliken; Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa; and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.

Less than two weeks after her death, a charred cross was found in front of four Detroit homes, including the Liuzzo residence.

Arrest and legal proceedings

The four Klan members in the car, Collie Wilkins (21), FBI informant Gary Rowe (34), William Eaton (41) and Eugene Thomas (42) were quickly arrested: within 24 hours President Lyndon Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest. In order to avoid bad media press, President Johnson made sure to focus on the positive work of the FBI agents' solving of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, in an attempt to divert scrutiny away from the fact that one of their paid informants was found to be one of the accused Ku Klux Klan killers. 8

Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas were indicted for Liuzzo's death on April 22. FBI informant Rowe was not indicted and served as a witness. Defense lawyer Matt Murphy quickly attempted to have the case dismissed on the grounds that President Johnson had violated the suspects' civil rights when he named them in his televised announcement. Murphy also indicated he would call Johnson as a witness during the upcoming trial.

On May 3 an all-white jury was selected for Wilkins' trial, with Rowe the key witness. Three days later, Murphy made blatantly racist comments during his final arguments, including calling Liuzzo a "white nigger," in order to sway the jury. The tactic was successful enough to result in a mistrial the following day (10-2 in favor of conviction), and on May 10, the three accused killers were part of a Klan parade which closed with a standing ovation for them.

Before the new trial got under way, defense attorney Murphy was killed in an automobile accident, on August 20, when he fell asleep while driving and crashed into a gas tank truck. The former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, Art Hanes, agreed to take over representation for all three defendants one week later. Hanes was a staunch segregationist who served as mayor during the tumultuous 1963 period in which police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor used fire hoses on African American protesters.

After another all-white jury was selected on October 20, the end result two days later saw the panel take less than two hours to acquit Wilkins in Liuzzo's slaying.

The next phase of the lengthy process began when a federal trial charged the defendants with conspiracy to intimidate African-Americans under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction civil rights statute. The charges did not specifically refer to Liuzzo's murder. On December 3, the trio were found guilty by an all-white, all-male jury, and were sentenced to 10 years in prison.9

While out on appeal, Wilkins and Thomas were each found guilty of firearms violations and sent to jail for those crimes. During this period, the January 15, 1966, edition of the Birmingham News published an ad offering Liuzzo's bullet-ridden car for sale. Asking $3,500, the ad read, "Do you need a crowd-getter? I have a 1963 Oldsmobile two-door in which Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was killed. Bullet holes and everything intact. Ideal to bring in crowds."10

After all three defendants were convicted of the federal charges, state murder cases proceeded against Eaton and Thomas. Eaton, the only defendant who remained out of jail, died of a heart attack on March 9. Thomas's state murder trial - the final trial - got under way on September 26, 1966. The prosecution built a strong circumstantial case in the trial that included an FBI ballistics expert testifying that the bullet removed from the woman's brain was fired from a revolver owned by Thomas. Two witnesses testified they had seen Wilkins drinking beer at a VFW Hall near Birmingham, 125 miles from the murder scene, an hour or less after Liuzzo was shot. Despite the presence of eight African Americans on the jury, Thomas was acquitted of the state murder charge the following day after just 90 minutes of deliberations. State attorney general Richmond Flowers, Sr. criticized the verdict, deriding the black members of the panel, who had been carefully screened, as "Uncle Toms."

On April 27, 1967, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the federal convictions of the surviving defendants. Thomas served six years in prison for the crime.

Due to threats from the Klan, both before and after his testimony, Gary Thomas Rowe went into the federal witness protection program. See Rowe v. Griffin, 676 F.2d 524 (1982).

FBI smear campaign

After Liuzzo's death, the FBI was concerned that they might be held accountable for their informant's (Rowe) role in the death. Rowe had been an informant for the FBI since 1960. The FBI was aware that Rowe had participated in violent activities during Ku Klux Klan activities. On the day of Liuzzo's death, Rowe called his FBI contact and notified him that Rowe and other Klansman were travelling to Montgomery, and that violence was planned.11 After Liuzzo's death, the FBI initiated a cover-up campaign, to obscure the fact that an FBI informant was in the car, and to ensure that the FBI was not held responsible for permitting their informant to participate in violent acts, without FBI surveillance or backup.12

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initiated a campaign to discredit Liuzzo in the eyes of the public. Hoover insinuated to President Johnson that Liuzzo was a drug addict, that she had sex with Moton, and that her husband was involved with organized crime. The FBI leaked the allegations to the media, and several newspapers repeated the claims. Liuzzo's husband attempted to defend his wife's reputation; his daughter Penny states that the disinformation campaign "took the life right out of him .. he started drinking a lot." Autopsy testing in 1965 showed no traces of drugs in Liuzzo's system, and that she had not had sex recently at the time of death. The FBI's role in the smear campaign was uncovered in 1978 when Liuzzo's children obtained case documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act.1314


Memorial to Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo in Lowndes County, Alabama

It is surmised by many (civil rights activists, Liuzzo's children, etc.) that Liuzzo's death helped with the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed barriers to voting such as literacy tests and poll taxes. President Lyndon B. Johnson also ordered investigation immediately after the death.citation needed Liuzzo was criticized by different racist organizations for having brought her death upon herself. At that time, Liuzzo’s choice to immerse herself in such a dangerous undertaking was seen as extremely radical and controversial. However, of all the deaths to occur during the campaign, Liuzzo's was the only one scrutinized in such a way, where other male activists who were killed were recognized as heroes. 4

On December 28, 1977, the Liuzzo family filed a lawsuit against the FBI, charging that Rowe, as an employee of the FBI, had failed to prevent Liuzzo's death and had in effect conspired in the murder. Then, on July 5, 1979, the American Civil Liberties Union filed another lawsuit on behalf of the family.

Rowe was indicted in 1978 and tried for his involvement in the murder.15 The first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second trial ended in his acquittal. See Rowe v. Griffin, 497 F. Supp. 610 (1980) for a complete description of the case.

On May 27, 1983, a judge rejected the claims in the Liuzzo family lawsuit, saying there was "no evidence the FBI was in any type of joint venture with Rowe or conspiracy against Mrs. Liuzzo. Rowe's presence in the car was the principal reason why the crime was solved so quickly." In August 1983, the FBI was awarded $79,873 in court costscitation needed, but costs were later reduced to $3,645 after the ACLU appealed on behalf of the family. See Liuzzo v. US, 565 F. Supp. 640 (1983).

The family's oldest son, Thomas, moved to Alabama in 1978 and legally changed his last name to Lee in 1982 after constant questions about whether he was related to the civil rights martyr.16

Liuzzo was the subject of a 2004 documentary, Home of the Brave. She was featured in a part 3 of a series of videos, "Free at Last: Civil Rights Heroes." Her murder was shown in Episode 2 of the King miniseries.

In 1991, Liuzzo was honored by the Women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with a marker on the highway (Highway 80) where she was murdered in the Ku Klux Klan attack in 1965.

In 2008, Liuzzo's story was memorialized in a song, "Color Blind Angel" by the late blues singer Robin Rogers on her album, Treat Me Right.17

An episode of the CBS TV series Cold Case, entitled "Wednesday's Women," was loosely based on her case.

See also


  1. ^ "Viola Liuzzo". Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  2. ^ "Tom Caudron on politics". Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Find @ UNC". 2000-04-01. Retrieved 2014-03-14. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Find @ UNC". 2010-01-01. Retrieved 2014-03-14. 
  5. ^ [1]dead link
  6. ^ a b c d e "Viola Liuzzo". Unitarian Universalist Association. Retrieved March 28, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b "Civil Rights Martyr Viola Liuzzo". Teamsters. Retrieved March 28, 2012. 
  8. ^ Gary May (2005). "The Informant: The FBI, The Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo". Yale University Press. p. 431. Retrieved 2014-03-14. 
  9. ^ Stanton, p 130
  10. ^ "Liuzzo protests car advertising". Baltimore Afro-American. 18 January 1966. Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  11. ^ Stanton, pp 52-55.
  12. ^ Stanton, pp 52-55.
  13. ^ Stanton, pp 52-55, 189-192.
  14. ^ Blake, p 201. Quote from Penny on p. 201.
  15. ^ Ingalls, 1979.
  16. ^ Houston, Kay. "The Detroit Housewife Who Moved a Nation Toward Racial Justice". Detroit News. Archived from the original on 1999-04-27. 
  17. ^ Horowitz, Hal (2008-06-24). "Treat Me Right - Robin Rogers : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-03-26. 


  • Hoods: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan by Robert P. Ingalls. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.
  • From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo by Mary Stanton. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8203-2045-5
  • Murder on the Highway: The Viola Liuzzo Story by Beatrice Siegel
  • The many deaths of Viola Liuzzo - 1965 murder of civil rights worker by Jared Taylor
  • Children of the Movement, by John Blake, Chicago Review Press, 2007, ISBN 9781569765944
  • Viola Liuzzo and the gendered politics of Martyrdom, by Jonathan L. Entin, Chicago Harvard Women's Law Journal, 2000, Volume 23, p. 249
  • Vindicating Viola Liuzzo: murdered by the Klan, demonized by the FBI, and disgraced by the press, Viola Liuzzo sacrificed life and legacy for civil rights by Mary Stanton. Alabama Heritage, 1998.
  • The Informant: The FBI, The Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo. by Gary May. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

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