Revolution #119, February 10, 2008


Home of the Brave The Defiant Spirit of Viola Liuzzo

from a reader

March 25, 1965: It was the final day of a four-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery demanding civil rights. A car carrying four members of the KKK pulled next to a car carrying two civil rights workers, Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white woman, and Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old Black man. Viola and Leroy were shuttling local people back to their homes after the march. The KKK racists fired at the car and the shots struck Viola in the head, killing her.

Viola Liuzzo is the only white woman to be killed in the civil rights movement. Today very few people know the story of this courageous woman.

A Rebel witha Strong Sense of Justice

I recently saw a documentary on DVD, Home of the Brave, released in 2004, which tells Viola’s story. It also relates the struggle that her five children have waged to uncover the facts behind her murder and tells what has been revealed by government documents: that the FBI was involved in her murder and played a key role in the smear campaign against her after she was killed. According to the documentary, the FBI turned over 1000 pages of its files on Viola Liuzzo, which, as one attorney comments, “is an unusual amount for the victim of a crime.” According to the film, the file on Liuzzo was three times the size of the FBI file on the KKK at the height of the civil rights movement!

Viola had been raised poor in Tennessee. She was always something of a rebel with a strong sense of justice, but these were the days before the “traditional role” of women as “housewife” was challenged as it would be (at least to a certain extent) in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Commercials portrayed women as dancing in ecstasy at the powers of a new detergent. Viola was very much trapped in this kind of traditional role, raising the children and taking care of the home. Viola had a baby that was stillborn and this caused a major crisis in her life. Catholic doctrine at the time said that a stillborn baby could never go to heaven. Viola couldn’t understand the irrationality and injustice of this, and it caused a crisis of her faith. This was a painful and wrenching period in her life. But at the end, as one of her children says in the film, “She left the Catholic doctrine and began exploring everything.” She went to Wayne State University in Detroit to study nursing and got involved with student groups, including the NAACP.

When Viola saw scenes on television of police brutally attacking a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, she was outraged. And when civil rights leaders issued a call for people to come to Selma, she had to go. Black people in Selma and throughout the South suffered under brutal Jim Crow segregation, enforced by the police and the KKK. In Selma, only 150 Black people were registered to vote out of a Black population of 30,000. In order for a Black person to register to vote, a white person had to “vouch” for them. 

Viola knew that going to Selma would be dangerous. Before she left she asked her best friend to take care of her children if anything happened to her. But Viola knew that it was important that people take a stand and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her.

FBI Hand in the Murder

After the murder, a vicious smear campaign was launched against Viola. Racist publications said that white women only went to Selma to have sex with Black men and the mainstream press said that Viola had no reason to leave her family. Her children were taunted at school: “Your mother was a nigger lover.” Crosses were burned on their lawn and bullets shot through their window.

Three men were charged with Liuzzo’s murder. The fourth man in the car, Gary Thomas Rowe, had been a paid FBI informer. Despite an eyewitness in the car, the three men were acquitted by an all-white jury. In closing arguments one of the defense attorneys called Viola a “white nigger.” The three were later found guilty of conspiracy in a federal trial and sentenced to only ten years in prison. They ended up serving six years for a cold-blooded murder.

In the 1970s it was revealed that the FBI informant had played a larger role in the Klan and in the killing of Liuzzo. It turned out that Rowe “had been present at just about every violent act committed by the KKK,” according to Viola’s daughter Mary. The FBI had told him to engage in violent acts. And it came out that Rowe was most likely the person who actually pulled the trigger killing Viola.

According to the film, FBI documents obtained by the family revealed that FBI Director Hoover had personally and deliberately engineered a smear campaign against Viola. Hoover put deliberately false information into reports that were disseminated throughout the FBI and leaked to the press. Hoover wrote that Viola had been sitting so close to her passenger “that it had the appearance of a necking party.” And he claimed that there were needle marks on Viola’s arm.

Viola’s family brought a civil suit against the FBI and the government. Despite all the evidence, a judge not only threw out the case but ordered the Liuzzo family to pay court costs, estimated at $100,000. Son Tony said, “I will never pay a penny to the United States government for the murder of my mother.” The outcome of the lawsuit was wrenching for the family, and especially for Viola’s sons Tony and Tommy, who had played the major role in the suit. The family was confronted with the hard truth that not only had “their” government played a role in the murder of their mother, but that it was unapologetic and was going to punish them for trying to bring out the truth. Tommy ended up dropping out from society, moving to the Mississippi backwoods and apparently taking up the racist thinking his mother fought against. Tony became a leading official in the right-wing Michigan Militia and went underground after 9/11.

For me, this points to a hard truth that revolutionaries need to think about. Even when people’s faith in the government is shattered, they do not automatically turn to revolutionary solutions. In fact, spontaneously people may turn to right-wing populist solutions or religion, or get cynical and demoralized. It is up to us to bring out to people the real forces that are responsible for their oppression and the real solution, and to challenge people, sometimes through sharp struggle, to confront painful truths.

The end of the movie follows Viola’s daughter Mary as she follows her mother’s route from Detroit to Selma and talks to people who knew her mother. Visiting the civil rights museum in Selma, Mary adds her mother’s name to a wall of comments by people who were part of the civil rights movement in Selma. “She came, she marched, and she died for what she believed in,” Mary writes.

The film also brings out how, while things have changed in Selma, in many ways they remain the same. In one scene, Black and white people work together at a polling station, but racist attitudes prevail. A white poll worker, when asked about Viola, says, “I don’t think she had any business down here.” A white couple, when asked if they are glad Black people have the right to vote, say, “I really can’t say.”

A marker has been erected at the place where Viola was shot down. But it has to be surrounded by bars to keep it from being vandalized.

At a time when nooses are appearing again and when society is trying to force women into traditional roles, the spirit and example of Viola Liuzzo is as relevant as ever. Check out Home of the Brave and watch it with your friends.  Text Box:

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