March to Montgomery
Murder of Viola Liuzzo
It's late afternoon when the marchers begin to disperse after the freedom rally at the Alabama Capitol. From the moment they leave Brown Chapel in Selma to the end of the program in Montgomery, the U.S. Army and federal law enforcement agencies keep everyone safe — no one has been seriously injured. But now the elaborate protection system begins to wind down just as tens of thousands of people head home. Unfamiliar with Montgomery streets, thousands of northern supporters, who came directly to the city, need help finding the homes and churches where their luggage is waiting and then transportation to airports and bus depots. Since passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black-owned taxis are now legally permitted to carry white passengers, but they are overwhelmed and white taxis want nothing to do with "agitators" and "race-mixers." Thousands of Blacks need to return to Selma, and thousands more to Wilcox, Perry, and other Alabama counties and communities. What little money SCLC has left is used to charter some buses, but most people have to be ferried back along US 80 in hastily organized carpools (Murder 1).
In the winter of 1965, Viola Liuzzo had two children by a previous marriage and three with her husband Anthony, an official with Teamsters local 247 in Detroit. Born in Pennsylvania, she had been raised in blinding poverty, mostly in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Viola was an observant girl, however, and one of the things she noticed was that however tough life was for her family, blacks in Chattanooga seemed to have it worse. She had a big heart, her kids recall to this day, and her everyday activism ranged from taking in stray cats and dogs to going back to school at Wayne State University to get a degree in sociology. She also contributed to social causes championed by her congregation, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit.
That February and March, she had been watching television coverage from Alabama, as Selma turned increasingly violent. In February, state troopers clubbed and fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson. In early March, James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston was beaten to death.
Liuzzo had watched television as the March 7 demonstration turned into a violent attack on the marchers, an event dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” That month, she attended a sympathy rally in support of the Selma protesters, and when some Wayne State study partners told her they were planning to go to Alabama, Liuzzo decided to join them. She volunteered to take her own car, a 1963 Oldsmobile, which proved fateful. She left Detroit on March 16, telling her husband she hoped he’d understand (Cannon 1-2).
Driving alone in her big Oldsmobile, it takes her three days to reach Selma where she volunteers with different work teams including the transportation committee (Murder 2).
Liuzzo joined thousands of fellow protestors in the first leg of the historic Selma to Montgomery march on March 21. However, state officials only allowed 300 marchers to continue the journey along the section of Highway 80 known as "Big Swamp" where the road narrowed from four to two lanes, and Liuzzo was not among the chosen group. Instead, she served at the Brown's Chapel hospitality desk in Selma until she rejoined the selected group on March 24 at City of St. Jude just inside the Montgomery city limits, where she provided first aid to many of the marchers. While waiting for the final leg of the march to start on the morning of March 25, Liuzzo had a premonition that somebody was going to be killed that day; she thought it might even be Alabama Governor George Wallace. After spending time in prayer, Liuzzo felt better and joined a swelling crowd of thousands of protestors who triumphantly walked to the steps of the capitol building.
After the rally at the capitol ended, Liuzzo returned to City of St. Jude where she met up with Leroy Moton, a young [19-year-old] civil rights worker who had been using Liuzzo's car to shuttle marchers back and forth between Selma and Montgomery. Liuzzo drove a group of marchers and Moton to Selma, where Moton retrieved a set of keys for another car in Montgomery that was to be used to transport additional groups of marchers. Liuzzo offered to drive Moton back to Montgomery and to bring any remaining marchers back to Selma before leaving for Detroit. … (Baumgartner 1-2).
By now it's dusk. Loitering in Selma's Silver Moon Cafe is a Klan "action team" of four KKK members from Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham. The four are William Eaton, Eugene Thomas, Collie Wilkins, and Gary Rowe. They're hard-core Klansmen, well experienced in violence and brutality. Though the first three don't know it, Rowe is also a paid informant for the FBI and has been so for many years. All day they've been in Eugene's Chevy Impala trying to get close enough to kill Dr. King, but Army security has been too tight. As night falls, they are disappointed and discouraged
Elmer Cook, one of the three men who killed Rev. Reeb, stops by their table. "I did my job," he says, "now you go and do yours." They return to their car and go hunting for someone to kill. On Broad Street, they spot an Oldsmobile with Michigan plates heading for the bridge. A white woman is driving. Her passenger is a Black man. They have their target. The four Klansmen follow her over the bridge, hanging back until they clear the state troopers and Army jeeps still patrolling the four-lane segment of Highway 80 leading out of Selma.
Out on the dark, two-lane stretch of US-80 in Lowndes County, Liuzzo and Moton suddenly realize they are being chased. She floors it, hoping to outrun their pursuers. The Klan car is faster. Slowly it gains on them. On a long straight section with no oncoming traffic, Thomas manages to draw up alongside. The other three open fire with pistols. Mrs. Liuzzo is shot through the head, killing her instantly. She slumps over, her foot no longer on the gas. The attackers surge ahead. The Oldsmobile swerves off the road into the shoulder ditch and then up the slope of a small embankment. Moton, unwounded but covered in Viola's blood, grabs the steering wheel and manages to bring the careening car to a stop.
The Klansmen turn around and come back. They shine a light though the shattered window glass. Moton feigns death. The Klansmen drive off. Moton flags down a truck carrying marchers home from Montgomery. They take him back to Selma. The cops arrest him.
News of Mrs. Liuzzo's murder is flashed to Washington. FBI Director Hoover informs President Johnson and Attorney General Katzenbach that an informer was in the Klan car. Though he has not yet received any report from Rowe, he assures them that his unnamed operative had no gun and did no shooting — which he later learns is not the case. Hoover echoes and validates segregationist slanders and slurs, falsely accusing Mrs. Liuzzo of having needle marks on her arm from taking drugs, and "necking" with Moton who, he claims, was "snuggling up close to the white woman."
What he does not reveal to the President (or anyone else outside the Bureau) is that Rowe's FBI handlers had known in advance, and granted permission, for him to ride with the KKK "action team" that intended to kill Dr. King. And that the Bureau made no effort to place them under surveillance or prevent them from committing murder.
Nor does Hoover reveal that for the past five years while working as a paid FBI informant, Rowe has simultaneously been an active and aggressive Klansman. The Bureau knows that he shot a Black man in the chest during turmoil over school integration and, though never charged, he was suspected of complicity in the Birmingham Church bombing that killed four little girls. They also know that he participated in the savage mob attack on the Freedom Riders in Birmingham. Rowe had warned the FBI in advance that the beating was going to take place — but the FBI did nothing to prevent it. Neither did they use Rowe's information to arrest the perpetrators. Nor did they ever act on any of the other racial crimes he participated in and reported to them.
All of this is kept hidden until 1975, three years after Hoover's death. Idaho Senator Frank Church leads investigations by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Regard to Intelligence Activities (Church Committee) that publicly reveal the concealed story of the FBI's relation with Rowe. A history that is then confirmed by a special Justice Department investigation report titled, The FBI, the Department of Justice, and Gary Thomas Rowe.
On Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Liuzzo's death, Johnson, Hoover, and Katzenbach announce the arrest of the four Klansmen. Charges against Rowe are dropped and he is given immunity in return for testifying against the other three. Murder is a state crime, and Alabama immediately releases the killers on bail. Segregationist whites now add "Open Season" bumper stickers to accompany their Confederate-flag license plates. Other than the assassins themselves, Leroy Moton is the only eyewitness to the murder. When he is released from jail, he is sent north for safety so the Klan can't murder him before he testifies (Murder 2-5).
Within a day of Viola’s murder, FBI agents, following their director’s dictates, prepared a report declaring that Liuzzo had been on drugs while she had been driving. Hoover himself sent a memo saying she had been “sitting very, very close to the negro in the car; that it had the appearance of a necking party.” An autopsy subsequently revealed no traces of drugs in her system and she had not had sex recently before her death.
Liuzzo and her family were smeared by the FBI, Selma officials, and the media. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attempted to divert attention from the fact that Rowe had tipped off his handler that there might be trouble the day before Liuzzo was killed. Hoover created a file depicting Liuzzo as an unstable woman with unsavory motives and also painted her husband, Jim, who was a member of the Teamsters union, as a thug. Hoover had his agents leak these reports to the media, who ran numerous articles questioning Liuzzo's character and reasons for being in Selma. Additionally, Selma Sheriff Jim Clark obtained and widely shared a file, known as the Lane Report, from the former chief of detectives in Detroit, who also questioned Liuzzo's mental stability. The Report bolstered … J. Edgar Hoover's self-serving portrayal of Mrs. Liuzzo as a drug-taking middle-aged adulteress with a black teenage lover … Finally, at a time when gender roles and stereotypes reflected and reinforced considerable gender inequality in American society, many Americans, both men and women alike, believed Liuzzo should have stayed home and tended to her family rather than advocating for voting rights for blacks (Baumgartner 5-6).
… the July 1965 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal published a poll that asked if readers thought Liuzzo was a good mother. Fifty-five percent didn't. ("I feel sorry for what happened," said one woman in a focus group convened to talk about the Liuzzo story, "but I feel she should have stayed home and minded her own business.")
The smears took an awful toll. Anthony Liuzzo became a heavy drinker and later died. The Liuzzo children all moved away. Sally Liuzzo-Prado, the youngest, was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. …
She remembered that her mother "called us every night. I learned how to cursive write and she was so excited. She told me to write my name and put it on her dresser and she'd see it when she got home” (Bates 1).
… two years ago, Liuzzo-Prado elected to return to her hometown.
"The older I got, the more I realized there was a lot of work to be done in Detroit still," she says. "And, you know, it's not so much just for her to have recognition. It's to right the wrongs done to her by J. Edgar Hoover." (Bates 3-4).
Martin Luther King attended Viola’s funeral and comforted the family. A group of people tried to break down the Liuzzos' door, and a cross was burned on their lawn. What [daughter] Sally Liuzzo-Prado remembers most vividly is the morning she returned to first grade after her mother's death.
She was wearing her saddle shoes, which her older sister, Penny, had polished.
"It was pouring rain that day. And I looked down at my saddle shoes and the white polish was coming off," she says. "These people — grown-ups — lined the street and were throwing rocks at me, calling me 'N-lover's baby.' I didn't know what that meant. I thought it was because of my shoes."
Anthony Liuzzo … withdrew his daughter from the school and had her transferred. For years, he drove her to and from school every day. Liuzzo-Prado says her father also hired two armed guards to watch their house day and night for two years (Bates 2-3).
Washington Post reporter Donna Britt interviewed Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe and her four siblings in 2016. She asked Mary who her mother was.
Mary answered: Everything you’d want a mom — and a hero — to be. She and her siblings were only too happy to discuss their mother with me recently, “not as a martyr,” as eldest daughter Penny put it, “but as this wonderful human being who loved every living creature.”
[Mary] Lilleboe was a 10th-grader in 1965. Her book report on “To Kill A Mockingbird” was in the car in which her mom died. The intolerance for suffering that had led Liuzzo to enroll in nursing classes made her acutely aware of black Americans’ feelings of invisibility. During a visit to a department store’s elaborate Christmas display, she asked Lilleboe, then 13, how she’d feel if every Santa she saw was black instead of white. When Lilleboe was 16, Liuzzo asked her how she’d feel “if the magazines I loved never put pretty white girls on their covers.” The questions saddened Lilleboe, now 69, of Grants Pass, Ore., but offered “a glimpse into a world totally different than the one I was living in.”
By any measure, the life Liuzzo gave her children was an enviable one. The wife of a Teamsters business agent, she was the nature-loving mom, whose Tennessee roots inspired barefoot strolls and an insistence on exposing her kids to planetariums, rodeos, circuses and even watching their dog giving birth, so they’d appreciate the natural world. She was the caring mom who cured son Tony’s terror of the noisy trucks spraying pesticides on the neighborhood’s trees by visiting City Hall and arranging for him to ride in one. “I’m sitting on this big truck, helping [workers],” Tony, 62, of Milwaukee, recalls. “I was never afraid after that.”
She was the fun mom, says Penny, 71, of Irwin, Tenn., describing the night she and a friend watching a scary movie were terrified when Viola — wailing ghoulishly in a fright wig, greenish makeup and Tony’s black altar-boy robes — materialized from around a dark corner.
What possessed Liuzzo to respond to her husband’s assertion that civil rights “isn’t your fight,” with, “It’s everybody’s fight,” and to join the hundreds flooding Alabama to protest?
Liuzzo’s instantaneous response to King’s appeal didn’t shock [Mary] Lilleboe. “If Mom saw a wrong . . . she took action,” she explains. When a neighbor’s house burned down one Christmas eve, her mother pounded on the door of a toy store owner’s home, insisting he open his shop so she could buy presents for the displaced family.
Her empathy was so reflexive, Lilleboe wonders, “Was Mom born with it?” As a child in Chattanooga, Liuzzo despised how cruelly she and her sister Rose Mary were treated as poor kids living in one-room shacks — yet she couldn’t help noticing black kids were treated even worse. Lilleboe never forgot her mom’s grief when the baby Liuzzo was carrying was stillborn — and her outrage when her Catholic church refused to bury her infant because it wasn’t baptized. If her love was too deep to discriminate against a baby, Liuzzo reasoned, God’s had to be immeasurably deeper, so she left Catholicism. Viola’s best friend in the world was Sara Evans, a black restaurant worker whom Liuzzo asked to care for her kids if anything befell her. After Liuzzo’s death, Evans became the brood’s second mother, especially when their dad — devastated by his beloved wife’s murder — drank too much or retreated.
Changing the world takes grit, grinding effort, unrelenting faith. In the journal the Liuzzos obtained from the FBI, [Viola] … wrote, “I can’t sit back and watch my people suffer,” about folks who looked nothing like her. Explains Lilleboe: “She actually believed it when Christ said that the suffering and needy are our people. Mom saw all other human beings as her people” (Britt 7-13, 21).
On Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Liuzzo's death, [President] Johnson, Hoover, and Katzenbach announce the arrest of the four Klansmen. Charges against Rowe are dropped and he is given immunity in return for testifying against the other three. Murder is a state crime, and Alabama immediately releases the killers on bail. Segregationist whites now add "Open Season" bumper stickers to accompany their Confederate-flag license plates. Other than the assassins themselves, Leroy Moton is the only eyewitness to the murder. When he is released from jail, he is sent north for safety so the Klan can't murder him before he testifies.
On May 3rd, six weeks after the murder, Collie Wilkins is put on trial for Liuzzo's murder. Whites jam the Lowndes County courthouse in Hayneville to show their support for a KKK killer. Blacks dare not attend. The jury, of course, is all white. And in accordance with southern tradition, the jury is also all male (white women being considered too pure, fragile, and delicate, to face the brutal underpinnings of the southern way of life).
The prosecution presents an irrefutable case of first degree (premeditated) murder, laying out both forensic and investigative evidence, and the eyewitness testimony of both Leroy Moton and Gary Rowe, who is now revealed under heavy guard as an FBI informant. During cross examination, Matt Murphy, the Klan's lawyer (or "Klonsel"), accuses Moton of shooting Liuzzo after having "interracial sex" with her, "under the hypnotic spell of narcotics." Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the Alabama KKK, sits with Wilkins at the defendant's table. After the prosecution rests its case, Murphy offers a cursory 20-minute defense. Then he attacks the prosecution and the victim. He characterizes Mrs. Liuzzo as, "A white nigger who turned her car over to a black nigger for the purpose of hauling niggers and communists back and forth." And he accuses Rowe of being a liar, "... as treacherous as a rattlesnake ... a traitor and a pimp and an agent of Castro and I don't know what all," for violating his Klan oath of loyalty and secrecy.
Though Wilkins's guilt is obvious, reporters and white onlookers assume the local white jury will quickly acquit him — as is the southern custom in racial cases. But to everyone's surprise, the jury fails to bring back a swift verdict of innocent on all counts. Instead, their deliberations are carried over to the next day. A mistrial is declared when the jury reports they are hopelessly deadlocked 10-2 for conviction on a manslaughter charge. This means they've chosen not to reach a guilty verdict on first or second degree murder, but 10 of them are willing to convict on the lesser charge of manslaughter (killing in the heat of understandable passion without premeditation or malice aforethought).
Some reporters believe that 10 Lowndes County whites willing to convict a Klansman of anything is a sign of racial progress. But most Movement activists assume it's because the victim was both white and a woman. In their opinion, if it had been Leroy Moton shot in the head, or a white male activist like Mickey Schwerner, a quick verdict of not guilty would have been returned.
Syndicated journalist Inez Robb is the only reporter who dares raise a fundamental question:
What sorely troubles me, if we accept the prosecution's account of the slaying, is the moral aspect of Rowe's presence in the car ... Under what kind of secret orders did Rowe work? [Was he expected to join in crime, strictly observe, or try to prevent murder?] It is one woman's opinion that the FBI owes the nation an explanation of its action in the Liuzzo case. — Inez Robb.
No explanation is ever forthcoming from the FBI. Bureau Director Hoover's personal vindictiveness against anyone who questions or criticizes either himself or the Bureau is notorious. … (Murder 5-8).
Viola Liuzzo's murder prompted a variety of responses from both the government and the American people. President Lyndon Johnson ordered an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan and petitioned Congress to make it legal to file federal murder charges against killers of civil rights workers. Additionally, Liuzzo's murder, like James Reeb's murder in Selma only two weeks prior, increased support for the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed and President Johnson signed into law in August 1965 (Baumgartner 7).
On October 20, Wilkins is placed on trial a second time. Again, Leroy Moton and Rowe testify. Replacing Murphy as defense counsel is former FBI agent and Birmingham Mayor Arthur Hanes. Like Murphy, he vilifies Mrs. Liuzzo and smears Moton, asking, "Leroy, was it part of your duties as transportation officer to make love to Mrs. Liuzzo?" This time the all white, all male, Lowndes County jury requires just 90 minutes to return a verdict of not Guilty on all charges.
In December 1965, Collie Wilkins, William Eaton, and Eugene Thomas, are tried by John Doar in federal court before Judge Frank Johnson. They are convicted of violating Mrs. Liuzzo's civil rights and sentenced to the maximum term of 10 years in prison. Rowe is given a $10,000 bonus by the FBI (equal to about $73,000 in 2012) and disappears into the secrecy of witness protection.
In 1977, the Liuzzo children manage to obtain her FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act and discover that the Bureau had orchestrated a covert slander and smear campaign to vilify their mother. They file a lawsuit claiming that the FBI knew Rowe and the other Klansmen were out to kill, and that by failing to take action, the Bureau effectively conspired in her murder. A judge dismisses their case in 1983, ruling there is no evidence of an FBI conspiracy to kill Mrs. Liuzzo specifically, and that the FBI could not be held liable for failing to prevent a crime.
When subpoenaed by a grand jury, Wilkins and Thomas testify that it was Rowe who actually shot Mrs. Liuzzo. They pass a lie-detector test and two Birmingham cops testify that Rowe bragged to them that he was the one who killed her. Rowe is indicted for her murder in 1978, but the federal government quashes the case on the basis of his immunity deal for testifying in the 1965 trials. Without an impartial investigation and actual trial, it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth — Rowe, a violent Klansman and informer, or the two convicted killers and police witnesses from a department known to be infiltrated by the KKK (Murder 9-10).
Bates, Karen Grigsby. “Killed For Taking Part In 'Everybody's Fight'.” NPR. August 12, 2013. Web. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/08/12/209595935/killed-for-taking-part-in-everybody-s-fight
Baumgartner, Neal. “Viola Gregg Liuzzo.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. Web. https://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/witnesses/violaliuzzo.htm
Britt, Donna. “A White Mother Went to Alabama to Fight for Civil Rights. The Klan Killed Her for It.” The Washington Post. December 15, 2017. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/12/15/a-white-mother-went-to-alabama-to-fight-for-civil-rights-the-klan-killed-her-for-it/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ce6a3f214fc1
Cannon, Carl M. “From Detroit to Selma: Viola Liuzzo's Sacrifice.” RealClear Politics. January 2, 2018. Web. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2018/01/02/from_detroit_to_selma_viola_liuzzos_sacrifice_135894.html
“Murder and Character Assassination of Viola Liuzzo.” The March to Montgomery (Mar). Civil Rights Movement History 1965: Selma & the March to Montgomery. Civil Rights Movement History & Timeline. Web. https://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis65.htm#1965m2m