Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Liuzzo, Viola

Viola Liuzzo was a civil rights activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as she drove another activist from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, during the Selma Voting Rights March.

Born Viola Gregg in Pennsylvania on April 11, 1925, she was raised in poverty in Georgia and Tennessee during the Great Depression, where she witnessed segregation first-hand. She later moved to Michigan, married Teamster Anthony Liuzzo in 1950, and attended Wayne State University. She became active in the Detroit chapter of the NAACP.

A middle-class, white mother of five children, Liuzzo was spurred to join the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the marchers after seeing televised footage of hundreds of peaceful protestors being clubbed and tear-gassed by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Soon afterward, she drove her Oldsmobile 800 miles to Selma. On March 25, she was driving 19-year-old Leroy Moton, an African American, to Montgomery, when a car carrying four KKK members began chasing them. The KKK members’ car pulled alongside Liuzzo’s, and they shot her in the head, killing her instantly. Moton was not hit and survived by playing dead.

Within 24 hours of the murder, President Lyndon Johnson went on television to announce the arrests of the KKK members – Eugene Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins, Jr., William Orville Eaton, and Gary Thomas Rowe – and demanded an immediate Congressional investigation of the KKK. Rowe was protected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as one of its paid informants and testified against the other men. The KKK members were all acquitted in the Alabama courts, despite eyewitness testimony and ballistics evidence, but found guilty of violating Viola Liuzzo’s civil rights by a federal grand jury and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Liuzzo’s funeral in Detroit was attended by many dignitaries, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Walter Reuther. Yet after her death her reputation was slandered, as false accusations were made about her morality, dedication to her family, and drug use. In 1978, documents released through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover masterminded the smear campaign, fearful of the FBI’s culpability of informant Gary Rowe in the murder. Liuzzo’s children were threatened and taunted, and a cross was burned on their lawn, prompting the need for round-the-clock guard for the next two years.

A martyr of the Civil Rights Movement, and the only white woman killed during that struggle, her death was not in vain; it is believed to have helped spark the passing of the Voting Rights Act just five months later. Viola Liuzzo has received many posthumous awards, including the prestigious Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award. In 2015, Wayne State University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, its first posthumous grant.