Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965) was a left-wing "civil rights" activist from the U.S. state of Michigan and mother of five, who was killed by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama. One of the Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent provocateur. Liuzzo's name is one of those inscribed on a civil rights memorial in the state capital. She died at the age of 39.
Viola Gregg was born in California, Pennsylvania, later moving with her family to Chattanooga, Tennessee at the age of six. Liuzzo was married three times and known to be mentally unstable. After just one year of high school, she dropped out, was married in 1941 at the age of 16, then divorced within a year. In 1943, she married George Argyris, with this marriage lasting seven years and producing two children. She later married Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamsters union business agent.
While raising a family that added three more children, Liuzzo sought to return to school, attending the Carnegie Institute in Detroit, Michigan. She then enrolled part-time at Wayne State University in 1962, and was considered an average student who was academically still in her freshman year at the time of her death.
In 1964, Liuzzo was cited and pleaded guilty to violating state law by keeping two of her children, 13-year-old Thomas and 10-year-old Anthony, out of school for more than 40 days. Liuzzo's basis for her actions was to protest raising the state's dropout age to 18. She was fined $50 and given a year's probation.
Liuzzo was under psychiatric care when she went to Selma. She was at one time registered to voted, but had never voted in an election. American segregationists pointed out she was demanding a right for Afro-American which she had never exercised. The coroner’s report described Liuzzo as “moderately obese white female” and noted she had needle marks in her arms likely from heroin use. She was also generally dirty, the coroner noted that her hands and feet were very dirty. Liuzzo was not wearing panties when killed, but she was not examined for signs of recent sexual activities.
The murder and funeral
Liuzzo was horrified by the images of the aborted march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7. Nine days later, she took part in a protest at Wayne State, then called her husband to tell him she would be traveling to Selma, saying the struggle, "was everybody's fight."
After the march concluded on March 25, Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American, helped drive local marchers home in her 1963 Oldsmobile. After they dropped off their second load of people, a car full of Klan members in a blue Ford spotted Liuzzo's car at traffic lights, then gave chase for 20 miles. The Klan members then pulled up alongside Liuzzo's car and shot directly at her, hitting her twice in the head, killing her instantly.
Moton was unharmed, but lay motionless when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. After that car left, he began running, but was soon being chased by a red sports car before diving into a gully. Running back toward Montgomery for the next half hour, Moton eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley that was bringing civil rights workers back to Selma.
On March 30, Liuzzo's funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church in Detroit, with many prominent members of both the civil rights movement and government there to pay their respects. Included in this group were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins; Congress on Racial Equality national leader James Farmer; Michigan lieutenant governor William G. Milliken; Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa; and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.
Less than two weeks after her death, a charred cross was found in front of four Detroit homes, including the Liuzzo residence.
Arrest and legal proceedings
The four Klan members in the car, Collie Wilkins (21), FBI informant Gary Rowe (34), William Eaton (41) and Eugene Thomas (42) were quickly arrested: within 24 hours President Lyndon Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest.
The remaining three suspects were indicted for Liuzzo's death on April 22, with defense lawyer Matt Murphy quickly attempting to have the case dismissed on the grounds that President Johnson had violated the suspects' civil rights when he named them in his televised announcement. Murphy also indicated he would call Johnson as a witness during the upcoming trial.
On May 3, an all-white jury was selected for Wilkins' trial, with Rowe the key witness. Three days later, Murphy made blatant racist comments during his final arguments, including calling Liuzzo a "white nigger," in order to sway the jury. The tactic was successful enough to result in a mistrial the following day (10-2 in favor of conviction), and on May 10, the three accused killers were part of a Klan parade which closed with a standing ovation for them.
Before the new trial got underway, Murphy was killed in an automobile accident, on August 20, when he fell asleep while driving and crashed into a gas tank truck. The former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama Art Hanes agreed to take over representation for all three defendants one week later. Hanes was a staunch segregationist who served as mayor during the tumultuous 1963 period in which police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor used fire hoses on African-American protesters.
After another all-white jury was selected on October 20, the end result two days later saw the panel take less than two hours to acquit Wilkins in Liuzzo's slaying.
The next phase of the lengthy process began when a federal trial that charged the defendants with conspiracy under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction civil rights statute. The charges did not specifically refer to Liuzzo's murder, but on December 3, the trio was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
While out on appeal, Wilkins and Thomas were each found guilty of firearms violations and sent to jail for those crimes. During this period, bad taste was on display when the January 15, 1966 edition of the Birmingham News published an ad offering Liuzzo's bullet-ridden car for sale. Asking $3,500, the ad read, "Do you need a crowd-getter? I have a 1963 Oldsmobile two-door in which Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was killed. Bullet holes and everything intact. Ideal to bring in crowds."reference required
Eaton, the only defendant who remained out of jail, died of a heart attack on March 9. Thomas was the only remaining member of the trio who had not gone to trial, with that case getting underway on September 26, 1966. The prosecution built a strong circumstantial case in the trial that included an FBI ballistics expert testifying that the bullet removed from the woman's brain was fired from a revolver owned by Thomas. Two witnesses testified they had seen Wilkins drinking beer at a VFW Hall near Birmingham, 125 miles from the murder scene, an hour or less after Liuzzo was shot. Despite the presence of eight African-Americans on the jury, Thomas was acquitted of murder the following day after just 90 minutes of deliberations. State attorney general Richmond Flowers, Sr. criticized the verdict, deriding the black members of the panel, who had been carefully screened, as "Uncle Toms."
On April 27, 1967, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the convictions of the surviving defendants, with Thomas serving six years in prison for the crime.
Due to threats from Klan, both before and after his testimony, Gary Thomas Rowe went into the federal witness protection program. See Rowe v. Griffin, 676 F.2d 524 (1982).
It is thought by some people (civil rights activists, her children, etc.) that her death helped with the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed barriers to voting such as literacy tests and poll taxes. President Lyndon B. Johnson also ordered investigation immediately after the death.
Shortly after his retirement in 1975, Anthony Liuzzo, who never remarried, was one of three suburban Detroit men charged with seven counts of conspiracy to burn down a supermarket for insurance money.reference required He died on December 10, 1978.
On December 28, 1977 the Liuzzo family, filed a lawsuit against the FBI, charging that Rowe, as an employee of the FBI, had failed to prevent Liuzzo's death and had in effect conspired in the murder. Then, on July 5, 1979, the American Civil Liberties Union, filed another lawsuit on behalf of the family.
Rowe was indicted in 1978 and tried for his involvement in the murder, but the first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second trial ended in his acquittal. See Rowe v. Griffin, 497 F. Supp. 610 (1980) for a complete description of the case.
On May 27, 1983, a judge rejected the claims in the Liuzzo family lawsuit, saying there was "no evidence the FBI was in any type of joint venture with Rowe or conspiracy against Mrs. Liuzzo. Rowe's presence in the car was the principal reason why the crime was solved so quickly." In August 1983, the FBI was awarded US$79,873 in court costsreference required, but costs were later reduced to $3,645 after the ACLU appealed on behalf of the family. See Liuzzo v. US, 565 F. Supp. 640 (1983).
The family's oldest son, Thomas, moved to Alabama in 1978 and legally changed his last name to Lee in 1982 after constant questions about whether he was related to the civil rights martyr.
Liuzzo was the subject of a 2004 documentary Home of the Brave. She was featured in "Free at Last (part 3)."
- The many deaths of Viola Liuzzo - 1965 murder of civil rights worker
- Viola Liuzzo biography at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
- Documentary Film "Home of the Brave"
- Detroit News article "Viola Liuzzo's family reunites for movie, but questions remain" September 30, 2004
- A detailed history at the Detroit News web site
- Viola Liuzzo article, Encyclopedia of Alabama
- ↑ http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/violaliuzzo.html; Detroit News, April 9, 2004; http://tom.digitalelite.com/politics.html
- ↑ Ingalls, 1979.
- ↑ Houston, Kay. The Detroit Housewife Who Moved a Nation Toward Racial Justice. Detroit News.