Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965) was a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan. In March 1965 Liuzzo, then a housewife and mother of five with a history of local activism, heeded the call of Martin Luther King Jr and traveled from Detroit, Michigan, to Selma, Alabama in the wake of the Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Liuzzo participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, she was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was 39 years old.
One of the four Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant Gary Thomas Rowe. Rowe testified against the shooters and was given witness protection by the FBI. The FBI later leaked what were purported to be salacious details about Liuzzo. The FBI attempted to downplay the situation and discredit Liuzzo by spreading rumors that she was a member of the Communist Party, was a heroin addict, and had abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African-Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement. None of these were either proved or substantiated in any way.
In addition to other honors, Liuzzo's name is today inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, created by Maya Lin.
Liuzzo was born Viola Fauver Gregg on April 1, 1925, in the small town of California, Pennsylvania, the elder daughter of Eva Wilson, a teacher, and Heber Ernest Gregg, a coal miner and World War I veteran. He left school in the eighth grade but taught himself to read. Her mother Eva had a teaching certificate from the University of Pittsburgh. The couple had one other daughter, Rose Mary, in 1930. While on the job, Heber's right hand was blown off in a mine explosion and, during the Great Depression, the Greggs became solely dependent on Eva's income. Work was very hard to come by for Mrs. Gregg, as she could pick up only sporadic, short-term teaching positions. The family descended further into poverty and decided to move from Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Eva found a teaching position, when Viola was six.
The family was very poor and lived in one-room shacks with no running water. The schools Liuzzo attended did not have adequate supplies and the teachers were too busy to give extra attention to children in need. Because the family moved so often, Liuzzo never began and ended the school year in the same place. Having spent much of her childhood and adolescence poor in Tennessee, Viola experienced the segregated nature of the South firsthand. This would have a powerful impact on her activism. It was during her formative years that she realized the injustice of segregation and racism, as she and her family, in similar conditions of great poverty, were still afforded social privilege and amenities denied to African-Americans under the Jim Crow laws.
In 1941 the Gregg family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where her father sought a job assembling bombs at the Ford Motor Co. Viola's strong-willed nature led her to drop out of high school after one year, and elope at the age of 16. The marriage did not last and she returned to her family. Two years later the Gregg family moved to Detroit, Michigan, which was starkly segregated by race. Tensions between whites and blacks there was very high and the early 1940s saw violence and rioting. Witnessing these horrific ordeals was a major motivator that influenced Viola's future civil rights work.
In 1943 she married George Argyris, the manager of a restaurant where she worked. They had two children, Penny and Evangeline Mary, and divorced in 1949. She later married Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamsters union business agent. They had three children: Tommy, Anthony Jr. and Sally. Liuzzo sought to return to school, and attended the Carnegie Institute in Detroit, Michigan. She then enrolled part-time at Wayne State University in 1962.
In 1964 she began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
A large part of Viola's activism, particularly with the NAACP, was due to a close friendship with an African-American woman, Sarah Evans. After initially meeting in a grocery store where Liuzzo worked as a cashier, the two kept in touch. Evans eventually became Liuzzo's housekeeper while still maintaining a close, friendly relationship in which they shared similar views including support for the civil rights movement. In the aftermath of Liuzzo's death, Evans would go on to become the permanent caretaker of Liuzzo's five young children.
Liuzzo so passionately believed in the fight for civil rights that she helped organize Detroit protests, attended civil rights conferences and worked with the NAACP. She had a strong desire to make a difference on as large a scale as she could.
In addition to actively supporting the civil rights movement, Liuzzo was also notable for her protest against Detroit's laws that allowed for students to more easily drop out of school. Her disagreement with this law led her to withdraw her children from school in protest. Because she deliberately home-schooled them for two months, Liuzzo was arrested, but did not waiver. She pleaded guilty in court and was placed on probation.
In February 1965 a night demonstration for voting rights at the Marion, Alabama, courthouse turned violent. State troopers clubbed marchers and beat and shot a 26-year-old African-American named Jimmie Lee Jackson, who later died. His death spurred on the fight for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) scheduled a protest march for Sunday, March 7, 1965. Gov. George Wallace banned the march, but the ban was ignored. Six hundred marchers headed for the arched Edmund Pettus Bridge that crossed the Alabama River. As the protesters reached the crest of the bridge, they saw a terrifying sight on the other side: state troopers armed with clubs, whips and tear gas and a sheriff's posse on horseback. When told to stop and disperse, the marchers refused. The troopers advanced on the marchers, clubbing and whipping them, fracturing bones and gashing heads. Seventeen people were hospitalized on the day later called "Bloody Sunday".
Liuzzo was horrified by the images of the aborted march on Bloody Sunday. A second march took place March 9. Troopers, police and marchers confronted each other at the county end of the bridge, but when the troopers stepped aside to let them pass, the Rev. Martin Luther King led the marchers back to the church. He was obeying a federal injunction while seeking protection from federal court for the march. That night a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to march with the second group. Many other clergy and sympathizers from across the country also gathered for the second march.
On March 16, Liuzzo took part in a protest at Wayne State. She then called her husband to tell him she would be traveling to Selma after hearing the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. call for people of all faiths to come and help, saying that the struggle "was everybody's fight." Leaving her children in the care of family and friends she contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who took her on and tasked her with delivering aid to various locations, welcoming and recruiting volunteers and transporting volunteers and marchers to and from airports, bus terminals and train stations, for which she volunteered the use of her car, a 1963 Oldsmobile.
On March 21, 1965 more than 3,000 people began the third march, including blacks, whites, doctors, nurses, working-class people, priests, nuns, rabbis, homemakers, students, actors, and farmers. Many famous people participated, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young. It took five days for the protesters to reach their goal. Liuzzo marched the first full day and returned to Selma for the night. That Wednesday, March 24, she rejoined the march four miles from the end, where a "Night of the Stars" celebration was held the City of St. Jude with performances by many popular entertainers of the day, including Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Baez, and Dick Gregory. Liuzzo helped at the first aid station. On Thursday, Liuzzo and other marchers reached the state capitol building, with a Confederate flag flying above it. Martin Luther King addressed the crowd of 25,000, calling the march, a "shining moment in American history."
Murder and aftermath
After the third march concluded on March 25, Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American, continued shuttling marchers and volunteers from Montgomery back to Selma in her car. As they were driving along Route 80, a car tried to force them off the road. After dropping passengers in Selma, she and Moton headed back to Montgomery. As they were getting gas at a local filling station, they were subject to abusive calls and racist scorn. When Liuzzo stopped at a red light, a car with four members of the local Ku Klux Klan pulled up alongside her. When they saw a white woman and a black man in a car together, they followed Liuzzo as she tried to outrun them. Overtaking the Oldsmobile, they shot directly at Liuzzo, mortally wounding her twice in the head. The car veered into a ditch, crashing into a fence.
Although Moton was covered with blood, the bullets missed him. He lay motionless when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. After the Klansmen left, Moton began searching for help, and eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley. Like Moton and Liuzzo, Riley was shuttling civil rights workers back to Selma.
Liuzzo's funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on March 30 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. She was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.
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 on national television to announce their arrest. In order to avoid bad press, President Johnson made sure to focus on the positive work of the FBI agents' solving of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, in an attempt to divert scrutiny away from the fact that one of the men in the car, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., was an FBI informant and therefore protected by the FBI.
Alabama mistrial and acquittal
Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas were indicted in the State of Alabama for Liuzzo's death on April 22. FBI informant Rowe was not indicted and served as a witness. Rowe testified that Wilkins had fired two shots on the order of Thomas.
Federal civil trial
The next phase of the lengthy process began when a federal trial charged the defendants with conspiracy to intimidate African Americans under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction civil rights statute. The charges did not specifically refer to Liuzzo's murder. On December 3, the trio were found guilty by an all-white, all-male jury, and were sentenced to ten years in prison, a landmark in Southern legal history.
While out on appeal, Wilkins and Thomas were each found guilty of firearms violations and sent to jail for those crimes. During this period, 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."
After all three defendants were convicted of the federal charges, state murder cases proceeded against Eaton and Thomas. Eaton, the only defendant who remained out of jail, died of a heart attack on March 9. Thomas's state murder trial – the final trial – got under way 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 the state murder charge 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 federal convictions of the surviving defendants. Thomas served six years in prison for the crime. Due to threats from the Klan, both before and after his testimony, Gary Thomas Rowe went into the federal witness protection program. Rowe died in 1998 in Savannah, Georgia, after having lived several decades under several assumed identities.
FBI cover-up and leaks
Within 24 hours after Liuzzo's assassination by the Ku Klux Klan and the FBI's informant Gary Thomas Rowe, J. Edgar Hoover began a smear campaign to the press, to subordinate FBI agents and to select politicians, claiming the cut marks from the car's shattered window were "puncture marks in her arm indicating recent use of a hypodermic needle; she was sitting very, very close to that negro in the car; that it has the appearance of a necking party."
While attempting to obscure the fact that an FBI informant was in the car, and to ensure that the FBI was not held responsible for permitting their informant to participate in violent acts, without FBI surveillance or backup, the FBI was concerned that they might be held accountable for their informant's (Rowe) role in the death. Rowe had been an informant for the FBI since 1960. The FBI was aware that Rowe had participated in acts of violence during Ku Klux Klan activities. On the day of Liuzzo's death, prior to the shooting, Rowe called his FBI contact and notified him that Rowe and other Klansman were travelling to Montgomery, and that violence was planned.
Autopsy testing in 1965 showed no traces of drugs in Liuzzo's system, and that she had not had sex recently at the time of death. The FBI's role in the smear campaign was uncovered in 1978 when Liuzzo's children obtained case documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act.
Legislation and subsequent lawsuits
Liuzzo was condemned by different racist organizations for having brought her death upon herself. At the time, Liuzzo's choice to immerse herself in such a dangerous undertaking was seen by some as radical and controversial. However, of all the deaths to occur during the campaign, Liuzzo's was the only one scrutinized in such a way, where other male activists who were killed were recognized as heroes.
Rowe was indicted in 1978 and tried for his involvement in the murder. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second trial ended in his acquittal.
On May 27, 1983, Judge Charles Wycliffe Joiner 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 response to the verdict, Liuzzo family lawyer Dean A. Robb said "This is a terrible opinion. I'm shocked. I think this is incredible." In August 1983, the FBI was awarded $79,873 in court costs, but costs were later reduced to $3,645 after the ACLU appealed on behalf of the family.
The Walter P. Reuther Library contains original archival material surrounding Liuzzo and her case. The Viola Liuzzo Papers contain documentation of the events surrounding the murder, the resulting investigation, and later legal involvement of the Liuzzo Family. The papers contain FBI murder investigation files and completed Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIPA) requests for the FBI's involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. Several documents relate to the Freedom Riders.
Liuzzo was featured in part 3 of a series of videos, Free at Last: Civil Rights Heroes.
Her murder was shown in Episode 2 of the King miniseries.
Viola Liuzzo Park is located at Winthrop and Trojan in Detroit.
Liuzzo has her name included as part of the Civil Rights Memorial, a monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by Maya Lin.
In 2004, Liuzzo was the subject of a documentary, Home of the Brave.
In 2008, Liuzzo's story was memorialized in a song, "Color Blind Angel" by the late blues singer Robin Rogers on her album Treat Me Right.
In 2011, the Viola Liuzzo Ethics Scholarship was started at Adrian College by her grandson, Joshua James Liuzzo.
In 2014, Outside Agitators was written by 20% Theater's Artistic Associate, Laura Nessler. Inspired by and based on Liuzzo's story, the play premiered at the Prop Theater in Chicago, Illinois, on September 20.
Liuzzo was played by Tara Ochs in the 2014 film Selma.
In 2015, Wayne State University bestowed its first posthumous honorary doctorate degree on Liuzzo.