From Detroit to Selma: Viola Liuzzo's Sacrifice

From Detroit to Selma: Viola Liuzzo's Sacrifice
AP Photo, File
From Detroit to Selma: Viola Liuzzo's Sacrifice
AP Photo, File
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On this date in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. convened the series of protests that would become known collectively as the Selma to Montgomery March.

“Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama,” King told supporters at Selma’s Brown Chapel AME Church. “We must be ready to go to jail by the thousands. ... Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one. Give us the ballot!”

It seems a modest demand, doesn’t it? The right of Americans to vote. But 53 years ago, in the old Confederacy, King and his followers were risking their lives by merely asking about their rights. Most -- but not all -- of King’s foot soldiers were African-Americans. Some weren’t even southerners. Among those who heard his call was Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white housewife from Detroit. As a result, her children would be motherless only three months later.

* * *

In the winter of 1965, Viola Liuzzo had two children by a previous marriage and three with her husband Anthony, an official with Teamsters local 247 in Detroit. Born in Pennsylvania, she had been raised in blinding poverty, mostly in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Viola was an observant girl, however, and one of the things she noticed was that however tough life was for her family, blacks in Chattanooga seemed to have it worse. She had a big heart, her kids recall to this day, and her everyday activism ranged from taking in stray cats and dogs to going back to school at Wayne State University to get a degree in sociology. She also contributed to social causes championed by her congregation, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit.

That February and March, she had been watching television coverage from Alabama, as Selma turned increasingly violent. In February, state troopers clubbed and fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson. In early March, James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston was beaten to death.

Liuzzo had watched television as the March 7 demonstration turned into a violent attack on the marchers, an event dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” That month, she attended a sympathy rally in support of the Selma protesters, and when some Wayne State study partners told her they were planning to go to Alabama, Liuzzo decided to join them. She volunteered to take her own car, a 1963 Oldsmobile, which proved fateful. She left Detroit on March 16, telling her husband she hoped he’d understand.

Nine days later, she participated in a Selma march and was driving a black demonstrator home when she was spotted by men in another car: three Ku Klux Klansmen and an FBI informant who’d infiltrated the Klan. Noting the Michigan license plates, a white woman at the wheel and a black passenger, they pulled in behind her on Highway 80. Belatedly sensing danger, Liuzzo sped up. The men followed, and 20 miles outside of Selma on a deserted stretch of road, they fired into the car. The shots killed Liuzzo, but missed her passenger, 19-year-old civil rights activist Leroy Morton, who survived by playing dead. He was covered in blood -- Liuzzo’s blood -- but was unharmed.

The following day, March 26, 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson himself announced the arrests of the killers.

“Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggle for justice,” the president old the nation. “She was murdered by the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and the gun and the tar and the feathers to terrorize their neighbors. They struck by night, as they generally do, for their purpose cannot stand the light of day.”

Her death was not in vain, as you can read in Donna Britt’s poignant piece last month in The Washington Post. Britt was a young girl living in Gary, Indiana when she saw Viola Liuzzo’s picture in her local paper. “Liuzzo had voluntarily put herself in a position where she could be attacked, even killed, for helping people who looked like my family and me -- people she didn’t even know,” Britt wrote. “And if a white mom with everything to live for would risk death for me, maybe I mattered more than even I had dared to imagine.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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