Viola Liuzzo marched for civil rights and ultimately was killed for it.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Adopted in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution technically granted all persons of color the right to vote. Yet nearly 100 years later, blacks were being prevented from going to the polls in regions that still clung to old hatreds. Alabama, deep in the American South, was a hotbed of racist activity. It was there that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to make a stand and lead a massive protest march from the city of Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.
The eyes of the world were on Selma as the protesters’ first attempt at the march was broken up by state police who viciously beat back the crowd using a combination of whips, nightsticks, and tear gas. Viola Liuzzo of Detroit was one of the thousands of Americans who watched the brutal scene unfold on live television and, like many others across the country, decided she could not just sit back and watch.
Liuzzo was a young mother of five and active member of her local chapter of the NAACP. When the protesters began their second attempt at the march on March 21, 1965 (this time protected by the National Guard), Liuzzo was in the thick of the action, ferrying activists between Selma and Montgomery in her car.
This time the march was a success and King was able to give a speech straight from the steps of the capitol. Later that evening, as Liuzzo was driving one of the protesters back to Selma, another car pulled up beside her and its occupants opened fire. Liuzzo was struck in the face and killed instantly; her vehicle swerved out of control and into a fence. The car’s other occupant, a 19-year old black teenager named Leroy Moton, had the presence of mind to realize he needed to play dead in order to stay alive, and the killers’ car eventually drove off.
Viola Liuzzo was the only white woman killed as part of the Civil Rights struggle. Her murder made national headlines and President Lyndon Johnson himself made the announcement that her killers had been caught. Over 300 mourners attended her funeral, including King. Michigan Governor George Romney declared that Liuzzo “gave her life for what she believed in, and what she believed in is the cause of humanity everywhere.”
Unfortunately, it did not change the fact that her five children would now have to grow up without a mother.
The men in the car who had hated the idea of equal rights so much that they shot an innocent woman in the face were all members of the KKK. One of these was Gary Thomas Rowe, who was actually an FBI informant. The agency’s now-infamous director, J. Edgar Hoover, realized the embarrassment the FBI would suffer once it came out that one of the murderers had been working for the bureau, immediately launched a shameful smear campaign to try and sully Liuzzo’s name.
Within a day of her murder, FBI agents had prepared a report declaring Liuzzo had been on drugs while she was driving. Hoover himself sent a memo saying she was “sitting very, very close to the negro in the car; that it had the appearance of a necking party.”
The tactics at first appeared successful: it took three trials to reach a guilty verdict. Rowe testified against the other Klansmen in the first two trials, which resulted in a hung jury, followed by acquittals on murder by a jury of all white males. After yet another trial in federal court jurisdiction, they were convicted of violating Liuzzo’s civil rights. As for Rowe, he was relocated and given a new identity by the FBI in exchange for his testimony.
The FBI granted Rowe immunity in exchange for giving information that helped to convict his three Klan comrades. Rowe, however, would later claim that he had fully embraced his racist role and received the support and encouragement of the FBI to participate in violent activities against the black community. He admitted to killing an unidentified black man during a riot in 1963, insisting that the agency knew all about this other murder.
Viola Liuzzo’s name would ultimately be cleared: the autopsy immediately debunked the drug accusations and no evidence was ever found to support the FBI’s other disgraceful claims. Liuzzo’s children would later take the agency to court, accusing them off negligence in handling their informant Rowe. It never was proven which of the four men had pulled the trigger, but Hoover’s smear campaign failed and Viola Liuzzo would be remembered as a heroine of the Civil Rights movement.