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UU civil rights martyr posthumously honored

Viola Liuzzo inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
By Jane Greer
11.10.06

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Viola Liuzzo memorial

Viola Liuzzo is honored as a civil rights martyr alongside the Rev. James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson in a bronze memorial at UUA headquarters in Boston. (Christopher L. Walton)

More than forty years after she was murdered, Unitarian Universalist civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo of Detroit was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame on October 25, 2006. The 39-year-old Liuzzo was killed on the night of March 25, 1965, by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she was driving another civil rights worker to Montgomery, Ala., at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Honoring Liuzzo is long overdue said Mary Campbell, coordinator of interdisciplinary studies at Davenport University’s campus in Warren, Mich., who, along with her student Linda Whaley, submitted the application for Liuzzo’s induction.

Although Liuzzo was initially lauded as a hero by the local press after her death, the media soon began running stories that described her as a drug addict, sexually promiscuous, and a bad wife and mother. Many believe that the FBI supplied these stories because an FBI informant was in the group that shot her and the agency wanted to divert attention from this fact.

It is only within the last decade, Campbell said, that Liuzzo’s actions have started to receive the attention they deserve. In 1998, Mary Stanton published the first book-length biography of Liuzzo in From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo. In 2004, Paola di Florio directed and produced a documentary film about Liuzzo’s life called Home of the Brave—an official selection at the 2004 Sundance and San Francisco film festivals.

Liuzzo was born Viola Gregg in Pennsylvania in 1925. During her childhood she lived in Tennessee, Georgia, and other parts of the south, witnessing racial discrimination first-hand. The family then moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Liuzzo later moved to Detroit to find work.

Twice divorced and the mother of five children, Liuzzo joined the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit in 1964. She also became active with the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and drove to New York City to attend a United Nations civil rights seminar sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Liuzzo was known for her passionate embrace of social justice causes. Before becoming active in civil rights, she was an advocate for education and economic justice reform and was arrested twice—in both cases requesting a trial to publicize her cause.

In 1965, like many Americans, Liuzzo followed civil rights developments in the south closely, especially on television. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. issued a call for religious leaders to come to Alabama after state troopers attacked marchers with billy clubs and tear gas as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Liuzzo took the call to heart. She drove her 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma, intending to stay a week. She volunteered at the Roy Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church and used her car to drive protesters back and forth from Selma and Montgomery. On March 25, Liuzzo was giving a ride to fellow civil rights worker Leroy Moton when four Klansmen pulled their car alongside hers and shot her. Liuzzo was killed instantly while Moton was able to escape. It was later learned that one of the Klansmen, Gary Thomas Rowe, was an FBI informant.

Campbell became fascinated with the case as a child growing up in Detroit. “Women always gathered at my mother’s house,” she recalled. “I remember some of them being confused about what had happened to Viola Liuzzo. She was a hero for three days and then all of these negative reports started to appear. They weren’t sure they supported her.”

Their feelings were widely shared. According to a Ladies’ Home Journal poll published in July 1965, 55 percent of the women surveyed believed that Liuzzo should have stayed home.

Campbell remembers her mother saying that there must be more to the story. “Even as a ten-year-old, I knew that no person could go down to risk their life and be guilty [of what these reports implied],” Campbell said.

Campbell applied for a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council to publicize Liuzzo’s civil rights contribution and received $15,000. Part of the money is being used to bring Liuzzo’s story to Davenport’s classrooms by making it a part of the curriculum. One of the students became so interested in Liuzzo’s story that she volunteered to help Campbell file the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame application.

Liuzzo was one of eight women inducted into the Hall of Fame at the October 25 ceremony, which drew a crowd of 300. Campbell gave the nominating address and Liuzzo’s sister, Rose Mary Lemming, and her daughter, Sally Prado, accepted the award on her behalf.

Earlier attempts at getting Liuzzo in to the Hall of Fame had been made by the Rev. Larry Hutchison, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Detroit from 1995 to 2004, and his wife Nancy, but were declined for insufficient documentation.

Of the four men accused of killing Liuzzo, three were given ten-year prison sentences not for murder, but for violating Liuzzo’s civil rights. The fourth, Klansman and FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe, testified for the prosecution and received immunity. In the late 1970s Liuzzo’s children attempted to sue the FBI for complicity in their mother’s death, but failed.

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