The Lives They Lived, The Lives They Touched

by Corey Robin on March 9, 2015

The year after I graduated college, I lived out in the East Bay area. I was interning at a magazine, for free, and temping (among various other jobs) to support myself.

At one of my temping gigs I befriended a woman from Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Her name was Gloria. She had long black hair, wore lots of leather and makeup, and listened to hard rock and heavy metal. I think she had a son, though I can’t remember for sure. A working-class Italian-American from back East, we didn’t have much in common except a shared love for complaining about our job and trash-talking our boss. Even so, she wound up telling me a lot about her personal life (I have vague memories of  a problematic boyfriend on the scene). She also lent me a cookbook of Italian recipes that I never returned to her.

One day, Gloria furtively pulled out a folder of clippings and told me they were about her Aunt Viola. Viola had been a mother of five in Michigan who went south in the 1960s to march for voting rights for black Americans. Gloria told me she was shot and killed. Gloria was clearly proud of her aunt, but she also said that not everyone in her family felt the same way. I had never heard of her aunt or this story.

Viola_LiuzzoI forgot about both, until years later, when I learned the story of Viola Liuzzo. I put two and two together and realized that Gloria was Viola’s niece. For many years, Liuzzo was one of the forgotten heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. But apparently she now has received her due in the film Selma, which I haven’t seen yet.

Mary Stanton wrote a lovely piece on Liuzzo back in 1999, which was revived and posted this month, but before I provide some excerpts here, I want to come back to Gloria. As far I could tell, Gloria was not a political person. She was mostly a survivor—of bad jobs, bad relationships, bad luck. Even so, she had strong feelings about racism and racial equality, rooted in a sense of obligation to her murdered aunt. Just a small reminder of how many lives a radical movement of social change like the Civil Rights Movement can touch.

From Stanton’s piece:

A red and white Impala full of angry Klansmen prowled the streets of Selma, Alabama, on the evening of March 25, 1965. The Voting Rights March had ended that afternoon, and federal troops were everywhere. Frustrated by the tight security, the Klansmen decided to return to Montgomery. Maybe they could provoke some trouble there.

Turning onto Water Avenue, they spotted a white woman in a car with a black man stopped at a traffic light. Viola Liuzzo and Leroy Moton were also heading back to Montgomery, to pick up a group of marchers who were waiting to return to Selma.

“Will you look at that,” one of the Klansmen said. “They’re going to park someplace together. I’ll be a son of a bitch. Let’s take ’em.”

Weeks later, one of the Klansmen — Tommy Rowe — would tell a grand jury that they followed Mrs Luizzo’s car along Highway 80 for the next 20 miles. When she realized she was being tailed, she accelerated to almost 90 miles an hour. They tried to pull alongside her green Oldsmobile four times, but each time they were forced to drop back — first by a jeep load of National Guardsmen, next by a highway patrol unit, then by a crowd of black marchers trying to cross the highway, and finally by a truck in the oncoming lane.

“That lady just hauled ass,” Rowe testified. “I mean she put the gas to it. As we went across a bridge and some curves, I remember seeing a Jet Drive-In Restaurant on my right hand side. I seen the brakes just flash one time and I though she was going to stop there. She didn’t … she was just erratic … Then we got pretty much even with the car and the lady just turned her head solid all the way around and looked at us. I will never forget it in my lifetime, and her mouth flew open like she — in my heart I’ve always said she was saying, “Oh God,” or something like that … You could tell she was startled. At that point Wilkins fired a shot.”

Viola Liuzzo, a housewife and mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, was killed instantly. Leroy Moton, covered with her blood, escaped by pretending to be dead when the murderers came back.

Because the Impala filled with Klansmen (including Tommy Rowe, who was on the FBI informer payroll) spotted Liuzzo leaving Selma with a black man sitting in the front seat of her car, she lost her life. And because the Birmingham FBI tried to cover up their carelessness in permitting Rowe — a known violent racist — to work undercover and unsupervised during the march, she also lost her reputation.

FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover himself crafted a malicious public relations campaign to blacken Liuzzo’s name in an effort to deflect attention from his Bureau. He successfully shifted the country’s concern from a brutal murder to a question of Liuzzo’s morals.

Hoover was desperate, and for good reason. He had to bury the fact that Rowe had telephoned the FBI on the day of the Liuzzo murder to report that he was going to Montgomery with other Klansmen, and that violence was planned. While Rowe claimed not to have known exactly what the plans were, he said Grand Dragon Robert Creel told him personally, “Tommy, this here is probably going to be one of the greatest days of Klan history.” That remark later led to speculation (never substantiated) that the Klansmen were scouting for an opportunity to kill a much more prominent figure — possibly Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hoover eagerly accepted Klan assistance in generating ugly rumors about Viola Liuzzo, and seduced the American press with a series of carefully engineered “leaks.” His caricature of Liuzzo as a spoiled, neurotic woman who had abandoned her family to run off on a freedom march took hold. Years of unrelenting accusations of her alleged emotional instability, drug abuse, adultery, and child abandonment nearly destroyed her husband and five children.

Despised as an “outside agitator,” Viola Gregg Liuzzo was in fact raised in rural Georgia and Tennessee. She grew up during the Depression in a Jim Crow culture of segregated schools, movie theaters, department store dressing rooms, water fountains, and churches. Her family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1941 in search of war work at Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant. In 1942, 18-year-old “Vi” Gregg moved on to Detroit by herself, where she met Sarah Evans, who would be her closest friend for 20 years.

Sarah Evans, a black woman from Mississippi, encouraged Vi to join the NAACP, begged her not to go to Selma, and ultimately raised Vi’s youngest daughter Sally, who was only six when her mother was murdered.

Until 1963, Vi Liuzzo lived a somewhat ordinary life. She kept house for her husband, Jim, a business agent for the Teamsters, and helped her five children with their homework, planned birthday parties, took the girls antiquing and the boys camping, and went back to work as a hospital lab technician when Sally started school. Realizing that more education would allow her to advance, Vi — a high school dropout — took and passed the admission test to Wayne State University.

At Wayne State, a wider world opened to her. She read Plato, who defined courage as knowledge that involves a willingness to act, and Thoreau, who believed that a creative minority could start a moral revolution.

Even though she was Roman Catholic, Vi began attending services at the First Unitarian Universalist Church just two blocks from the Wayne Campus. It was a congregation committed to social justice; many were former Freedom Riders. She also attended weekly open houses hosted by chaplain Malcolm Boyd, who defined himself as a “Christian existentialist:” “We are what we do,” Rev. Boyd told his students, “not what we think or say.”

In this morally-charged atmosphere, Vi Liuzzo made her decision to respond to Dr. King’s national call for help. She volunteered for the transportation service with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On her first day in Selma, she met fellow volunteer Leroy Moton, 19. She would later be accused of having an affair with this young man, who was the same age as Sarah Evan’s grandson, Tyrone.


Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, the young men murdered during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, were already civil rights heroes by the time of Viola Liuzzo’s murder. They were all young men of promise. A white activist college student, a selfless white social worker, a black community worker determined to fight for the freedom of his people — these were positive images.

Viola Liuzzo, however, was too old, too pushy, too independent, and she trampled on too many social norms to be a hero. She’d ventured beyond the role of wife and mother to demonstrate on behalf of a social movement that a majority of white Americans felt was already moving “too fast.” Viola Liuzzo’s activism couldn’t be chalked up to youthful idealism. Hers threatened the family, the protected status of women, and the precarious balance of race relations.

Ironically, she’d been murdered precisely because she afforded such a clear symbol to the segregationists — a white female outside agitator driving after dark with a local black activist. This all resonated for them. In choosing her, the Klansmen sent a clear message that Northern whites and Southern blacks would understand.

In the cases of Goodman, Schwemer, and Chaney, the families worked hard to ensure that their sons would not be forgotten. All three families had been supportive of their sons’ involvement in the movement, while Jim Liuzzo had been more ambivalent.
After Vi’s murder, Jim found himself continually defending her reputation, refuting the vicious rumors, and trying to protect his children. He told a reporter for the Free Press,”My wife was a good woman. She’s never done anything to be ashamed of.” Two days after her funeral, a cross was burned on his lawn in Detroit.

Viola Liuzzo’s children were taunted by their classmates, shunned by their neighbors, and shamed by the cloud of suspicion that hung over their mother’s activism. She became the single most controversial of the civil rights martyrs.

I never forgot about her, about how angry people were at her. And I never forgot how they seemed to lose track of just who the victim was.

And gradually, I understood that Viola Liuzzo’s story is of an ordinary woman whose simple desire to be useful collided with America’s belief that change was happening too fast — and lost her life and her reputation for her trouble.

In this sense, we can see clearly in her life what author Melissa Fay Green once observed: “After the fact, historians may look back upon a season when a thousand lives, a hundred thousand lives, moved in unison; but in the beginning there are really only individuals, acting in isolation and uncertainty, out of necessity or idealism, unaware that they are living through an epoch.”




efcdons 03.09.15 at 7:49 pm

I was at the new Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta recently. One of the most affecting exhibitions was the wall of martyrs to the cause. I read about Ms. Liuzzo there and I was touched by her story. I had never heard of her, but she was truly a hero. I didn’t know she was originally from the south. The exhibition copy made it sound like she was a Michigan housewife who randomly went south to assist with the movement.

The wall of victims of racial violence was heart breaking. So many of them were black men who were killed at random in response to “agitation” sometimes hundreds of miles away from the murder.

If you are in Atlanta the museum is well worth a visit.


Main Street Muse 03.09.15 at 7:56 pm

Hoover was truly a vile, hate-filled man, devoted to un-American principles. But he was not alone in his hatred – I feel such sympathy for Liuzzo family – enduring a concerted smear campaign for so many years. I am always amazed by the hatred inspired by women and minorities who dare to challenge the established order of things.

“At Wayne State, a wider world opened to her. She read Plato, who defined courage as knowledge that involves a willingness to act, and Thoreau, who believed that a creative minority could start a moral revolution.”

This is why universities are targeted by those who want an uneducated base… universities wake people up and rattle their thinking in ways that are dangerous to the status quo.


MPAVictoria 03.09.15 at 8:35 pm

An ordinary person trying to make a difference. We should all be so brave.

/Her poor family. :-(


Lynne 03.09.15 at 9:55 pm

What a sad story, that her courage should result in such hardship for her family. I almost said she didn’t know what she was up against (the head of the FBI, for crying out loud) but she probably had a good idea.

At least her children are probably alive to see the truth come out.


Russell Arben Fox 03.09.15 at 10:12 pm

Superb, Corey. Thank you for sharing.


christian_h 03.09.15 at 10:47 pm

Thanks, Corey.


Anarcissie 03.10.15 at 12:37 am

It’s amazing how Viola Liuzzo is forgotten over and over again. Or — maybe it isn’t.


LFC 03.10.15 at 12:42 am

Ditto to comments 5 and 6.


mattski 03.10.15 at 12:54 am

It is heartbreaking…

For our collective sake I recommend the official transcript of the MLK conspiracy trial. I’m about 2/3 of the way through its 766 pages.

A LOT has been hidden. We owe it to ourselves to get at the truth.


Maria 03.10.15 at 9:11 am

‘I am always amazed by the hatred inspired by women and minorities who dare to challenge the established order of things.’

Yes, MSM. There is something so vicious about what Hoover did. Even to the nth generation.

As MPA says, that we should all be so brave. Except we’re not, and I don’t know what we’ll ever do about that.

We do owe it to people like Viola to get at the truth and not turn away from it; but also to recognise Hoover’s m.o. is timeless and in play today.

Look up Doreen Lawrence, a London woman who campaigned about the murder of her boy, and was trailed by the Met for years so they could find something to smear her with. They didn’t, the head of the Met apologised, and we all know they would do exactly the same thing again.


Nym w/o Qualities 03.10.15 at 1:59 pm

“A working-class Italian-American from back East, we ….” Dangling modifier, ambiguous. I honestly don’t know which of you was the W-CI-AFBE. C’mon, prof. Think of the children.


Nancy Jane Moore 03.11.15 at 6:02 am

I’m a little surprised by the idea that Viola Liuzzo has been forgotten. I knew immediately who you were talking about. And while I recall that there were attempts to destroy her reputation, I also remember being very aware that those rumors were nonsense, lies made up to try to keep people from seeing her as a martyr. Of course, I remember the whole thing from reading the papers and watching it on television as a kid. I don’t know what’s been taught as history since then.

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