Who was Viola Liuzzo?
The last ten minutes of the blockbuster
SELMA introduces a white woman killed on the last day of 1965 Voting Rights March who became the only woman honored at Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial.
Who was she?
In 1965 I was nineteen years old and living with my parents in Queens, New York. On March 26 we watched Walter Cronkite’s report about Viola Liuzzo the 39 year old Detroit housewife and mother of five who’d been murdered. Although President Johnson addressed the nation and directed the FBI to work around the clock to find her murderers it took only days to transform this woman from victim to an outside agitator and symbol of recklessness. Why?
Liuzzo was shot by four Klansman, one who worked for the FBI. To cover the fact that the Bureau had permitted a known violent racist to work under cover during a massive interracial march, J. Edgar Hoover fed a malicious public relations campaign to portray her as an unstable and immoral woman. He was successful. Liuzzo became the perfect symbol of everything the Klan and much of the white South in 1965 detested. She’d volunteered for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference effort in Selma. With her Michigan plates and a young male black SCLC volunteer riding in the front seat beside her she was the image of a race traitor. Race traitors forfeited the protection of “sacred white womanhood.” Liuzzo had traveled beyond the boundary of marriage and motherhood. The message that the Klansmen sent to local activists by killing her and her black fellow volunteer was that things were not going to change. The message to outsiders was that a trip South to agitate could prove fatal.
Liuzzo’s violent death magnified the nation’s nervous concerns about social justice, civil rights, anti-war activism, and feminism. Advocating racial justice was a radical activity in 1965. A majority of white Americans believed that even if it was justified, the civil rights movement was moving too fast. Liuzzo’s activism could not be written off as youthful enthusiasm. She was a middle-aged wife and mother. Her actions threatened the stability of the family. White American women could not afford to sympathize with her. That would invite too many questions about their own lives.
Ironically, while Liuzzo was targeted for execution because she provided such a powerful symbol for opponents of the civil rights movement she was of no symbolic value for the movement itself. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, the three young men who were murdered in Mississippi the summer before were positive symbols. Goodman was a white college activist, Schwerner a white social worker, and Chaney a black community worker. Their families were proud of their activism while Liuzzo’s husband was always conflicted about the causes his wife chose to support.
In March 1965 as I watched the Evening News it was Liuzzo’s personal courage that struck me. I would like to have known somebody like that---a woman who wasn’t afraid. Here was someone who would not be trapped, smothered or suffocated.
Years passed before I came to respect Liuzzo’s dedication to social justice. As a young woman she gave me hope that perhaps my life need not be constricted by the boundaries of appropriateness, acceptability and inoffensiveness. I didn’t believe that was possible in those days. I could say with Betty Friedan who published The Feminine Mystique that year that “I never knew a woman, when I was growing up, who used her mind, played her own part in the world and also loved and had children. What resonated for me was Liuzzo’s determination to make her life count. I tried not to think too much about what that determination had cost her.
In the course of researching Viola Liuzzo’s life in the 1990’s for a biography From Selma To Sorrow, I discovered that she possessed deep sensibilities, a short temper, abiding warmth, painful restlessness, and a strong moral compass. Her untimely death provided the impetus for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a good bit of inspiration for a young woman coming of age in Queens.