Saturday, March 25

The Death of Viola Liuzzo, March 25, 1965


"I stated the man himself doesn't have too good a background and the woman had indications of needle marks in her arms where she had been taking dope; that she was sitting very, very close to the Negro in the car; that it had the appearance of a necking party."

--J. Edgar Hoover, internal FBI memo on his conversation with AG Nicholas Katzenbach the morning after Liuzzo's murder. "The man himself" refers to her husband.


She was a couple weeks from her fortieth birthday, the mother of five, three girls, two boys. Viola Fauver Gregg was born in Pennsylvania, her father a miner until he lost a hand in a mining accident. She grew up poor. They lived in at least a couple Southern states before the War and its industrial jobs took the family to Michigan. She moved to Detroit. She married in '43, had two daughters, divorced in '49. Two years later she married Anthony James Liuzzo, a Teamsters organizer. They had three children, and he adopted her two daughters.

Never religious, she converted to Roman Catholicism for the marriage, became interested in Catholic mysticism, then Protestant evangelicalism, and finally joined the Unitarian church in 1964. She worked locally on education reform and economic justice, and was twice arrested for it. She joined the Detroit chapter of the NAACP the same year she became a Unitarian.

On February 18, 1965 in Selma, Alabama, another Viola--Jackson (née Lee)--took part in a night march for voting rights that began with a mass meeting at Brown Chapel. The marchers didn't get far before they were blocked by a line of Alabama State troopers the locals had called in for help. Police began beating and chasing the marchers. Viola Jackson's eighty-two year old father, Cager Lee, stumbled bleeding into Mick's Cafe, where he found Viola and her son Jimmie Lee Jackson. Some of the troopers were forcing marchers into the cafe; others came in and started driving them back out. They attacked Cager Lee again. When Viola went to protect him she was beaten to the ground. When Jimmie lunged to protect his mother he was shot twice in the stomach, beaten and tossed outside where he collapsed. He died of infection eight days later.

Three weeks later came Bloody Sunday, when 600 marchers led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams were attacked at the Edmund Pettus bridge by state and local police. The brutality against the nonviolent marchers focused national attention, and the whole of the national debate, on Selma. Two days later, in the face of a federal restraining order (the result of the SCLC seeking federal protection for a Selma-Montgomery march), Rev. Martin Luther King led marchers out to the bridge before turning back. Later that day a Unitarian minister named James Reeb was beaten on a Selma street. He died two days later.

His death, and her reaction to President Johnson's speech about the Selma violence, convinced Viola Liuzzo she had to get personally involved. When several other Detroit-area volunteers backed out at the last minute, she drove to Alabama alone. She arrived in Selma two days before the march to Birmingham, now under Federal protection, began. They arrived in the capitol March 25.

Viola had left her Oldsmobile to be used as a shuttle vehicle. While she was working at a first-aid clinic at the end of the march she was told she might want to reclaim it as it was now in the hands of someone rumored to lack a driver's license. She found the car, took over the driving duties from nineteen-year-old Leroy Moton. They ferried four marchers to Selma, pursued by two cars which tailgated them much of the way, then prepared for another run to Montgomery to pick up more.

On their way out of Selma a car carrying four Klansmen spotted the Michigan plates and the white woman with the black man. They chased the car at high speeds into rural Lowndes county and pulled alongside. Three of the men fired from the passenger side. Viola Liuzzo was struck twice in the head and died instantly. Moton survived unharmed.

The FBI arrested the four--Collie Leroy Wilkins, Jr., William Orville Eaton, Eugene Thomas, and Gary Thomas Rowe--within 24 hours. That was the easy part: Rowe was an FBI informant. The difficult part was concealing that fact, and the fact that Rowe had been given specific approval to join the Klan's "missionary team" that day, not only from the press and the judicial system, but from the President of the United States as well. The Bureau was showered with praise for its swift action in "solving" the case. The New York Times, in a glowing feature story on Hoover, called it "a spectacular feat"


Hoover's smear of Viola Liuzzo--there were no needle marks on her arms, no drugs in her system, and he chose to spread his trademark juvenile sexual sniggering despite knowing very well what she was doing there--would not be made public until 1978, with an investigation of the FBI's COINTELPRO program (which had also spread rumors that she was a Communist. Sorry to spring such a shocker on you.) It turned out that, contrary to what Hoover had told Johnson, the Bureau had not flipped Gary Thomas Rowe, Klansman, but had in fact recruited him as a spy and asked him to join the Klan. The investigation also implied that Rowe had been involved with the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist in Birmingham. An FBI file which later came to light revealed that Rowe had attacked Freedom Riders in 1961 with a weighted baseball bat. The Bureau paid his medical bills and gave him a bonus. Rowe, in fact, had been the Klan's liaison with Birmingham Public Safety Director Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, who had kindly held his men aside for fifteen minutes while the beatings occurred. Rowe had informed the Bureau of the planned attack, but Hoover declined to inform Attorney General Kennedy, and the Bureau did less to stop it than Bull Connor's men.

Not surprisingly, none of the four was ever convicted in an Alabama court. Rowe testified against the other three, who were later convicted under 19th century federal anti-Klan legislation. Eaton died of a heart attack in 1966. Wilkins and Thomas did ten years.

In 1978 the state of Alabama indicted Gary Thomas Rowe, now living in Georgia under the Witness Protection Program, for the murder of Viola Liuzzo. The state began extradiction proceedings. Extradition was blocked by a federal court on the grounds he was protected "as a federal agent." The ruling was upheld on appeal.

Viola Liuzzo's children sued the FBI for its responsibility in her death. The case was thrown out and they were ordered to reimburse the government $80,000 for the cost of its defense. That amount was later reduced to $3600.

By 2006 all four of Viola Liuzzo's murderers were long since dead, and enough time had passed that it was possible to convince the Executive Editor of the Washington Post that calling Coretta Scott King a Communist was merely a hyperbolic reaction to her association with other Communists.

11 comments:

Vicki said...

Wow. Excellent post. I owe it to people like Viola Liuzzo to put my comfort on the line to stand up for what I believe in--that America doesn't torture, that the rule of law matters, and that the President is accountable to the people he leads. I've called my representative and my two senators, but I'm going to keep speaking out. It's not as if I'm likely to be shot, or hit, or attacked by a German shepherd for it.

Houston said...

We've started to sanitize our memory of recent history. In Texas, members of the state Board of Education wanted text books to tone down the telling of the Civil Rights Movement because the truth was too unflattering "to America." The same board thought the story of slavery should be lightened up the same way.

Our job is to not let them get away with it. Great post.

R.Porrofatto said...

Thanks for the eloquent reminder of the two Violas. People forget, or if younglings, don't know, just how much courage ordinary people evinced to wring a precious handful of rights and protections from the same ruling classes who now brazenly steal them back. (The fact that people actually died for the 8-hour workday draws glassy stares of incomprehension, or worse, sympathy for the bosses whose profit margins suffered as a result.) And you can bet the farm that the troopers cracking skulls and the Kleagles firing head shots fancied themselves good christians doing god's work.

Who are the moral majority's heroes now? "Brooks Brother" rioters who hurry down from the country club to install a soulless icon for our times, while a contemptible squirt like the young St. Domenech can actually think himself a martyr for America.

And damn. If ever some untutored alien wonders how we arrived a such a sorry state as now, one has only to point to all the prestige, power, and respect once accorded the abhorrence known as J. Edgar Hoover.

BB said...

Thanks ... I think of even now.
It seems so long ago .... but of course it wasn't.

punkinsmom said...

There is a special place in Hell for those who hate to such a degree.
God bless Viola and all who worked and died to force us to see what we should have seen all along.

Anonymous said...

I GREW UP IN THE SOUTH WHEN THIS CRIME HAPPENED. WE WERE RAISED TO BE SOME WHAT AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE. IN 1965 I WAS A YOUNG BOY. I AM OLD NOW. I NO LONGER SHARE THE BELIEFS THAT I ONCE DID. I WOULD NEVER HAVE BELIEVED IN MURDER AGAIST ANY RACE.I HAVE TRAVELED THE WORLD. THIS WOMAN WAS A HERO AND SHE WAS VERY BRAVE.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the degree to which the American gov't holds power is one of the most frightening realities I have had to deal with to date. This article astounds me as not only is the US president, hoover especially guilty of so many innoncent lives being lost, the FBI and the MILITARY, being controlled and run by such individuals are just as responsible. At the moment I'm reading a book on Oppenheimer and placing his situation at certain moments in time as this was happening, devastates me. America literally has made it impossible for me to have faith in any government. It is sad the amount of "freedom" they themselves, the gov't has and yet they so easily relinquish the "civil liberties" of so many brave souls. The fact that one man, stood in public eye and claimed this woman a heroin addict, reveals to me the utmost ignorance of someone who is not only supportive of such tragedies but behind all of these tragedies and allows them, through his power and greed, to be dismissed so easily. WE lived in a devastatingly sad country. And our gov'ts and our militaries are not something to be proud of. To what degree are we seen as humans and to what degree will the gov't take responsibility for destroying our futures and our children's futures. Viola, She is a hero. More than any man living in a White House or wearing a metal could possibly be because her ideas were her own and her fight came from her passion for humanity. And it is people like her and martin luther, and so many more that should make us proud to be american. This article sickened me. absolutely sickened me. Furthermore, I am still in complete and utter shock and in awe tha men like hoover, bush etc...exist. They to me represent everything that's wrong with this world at hour.

Anonymous said...

wow. where do you start? i was a day old when Viola was murdered. we studied the civil rights movement in school in the 1970's and i can tell you we never were taught that white people died nor that our own government was so corrupt. i am glad that we have reached an age where people can share the real truth of our history. GOD BLESS THIS WOMAN FOR HER BRAVERY AND HER COMPASSION, especially at a time of such violence in the south. others with good intentions would have been scared off. what guts! -ANON IN NY

Anonymous said...

God bless Viola. She was a remarkable woman and I blame the KLAN for those racist lies about Liuzzo. My opinion is that Liuzzo's killers have a special place in hell, they do not deserve a place in heaven. Viola and her children deserve special places in heaven.

Anonymous said...

i thankk how ever rote that because it helps me with a school project

Sally said...

Hello everyone. I am Viola's youngest daughter Sally. I was 6 years old when mom was killed. I just wanted to thank all of you for the kind comments about my mom. I akso have a Face Book page dedicated to her memory and the civil rights movement. Please feel free to join us there. It is "Viola Liuzzo Civil Rights Martyr" on Facebook. All the best,
Sally