In March of 1965, Viola Liuzzo drove the family’s Oldsmobile from her Detroit home to Alabama to participate in Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches from Montgomery to Selma. The marches, three of them, were in response to the atrocities marchers endured earlier when trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, and King put out a call to people of all colors and all faiths to join him in protest against what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Liuzzo, 39, a white Unitarian and mother of five, had already been active in Michigan racial politics as a member of the NAACP. When she reached Alabama, King’s organization (The Southern Christian Leadership Conference) put her to work on the logistics of getting participants to and from the airport, bus and train stations as they poured into Montgomery. She volunteered the use of the Oldsmobile.
On March 25, while shuttling marchers between Selma and Montgomery, Liuzzo was murdered, shot twice in the head from a car carrying four Ku Klux Klan members, one an FBI informant. They had chased her down after seeing a white woman driving a car accompanied by a young black man, Leroy Moton. Moton, like Liuzzo, was involved in the logistics of getting marchers where they needed to be. He was not shot, but was covered in blood and pretended to be dead when the Klansmen returned to the wrecked Olds to check on their handiwork.
What was then the extreme right and its media organs set out to discredit Liuzzo almost immediately, insinuating she got what she had coming to her. Even J. Edgar Hoover, the disgraceful specimen who then headed the FBI, implied she was a drug user and had been engaged in sex with black men prior to her death. None of it was substantiated, none of it was true. An autopsy proved she had neither drugs in her system, nor any evidence of sexual activity.
Just days after the murder, a cross was burned in front of her Detroit home.
Viola Liuzzo, along with so many others—Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, four little girls (Denise, Carole, Cynthia and Addie Mae), Martin Luther King himself, and untold numbers of African-American men and women lynched, shot, burned, beaten, raped—became, for an earlier generation, a guiding beacon for millions of Americans as racial politics was dragged, kicking and screaming, from Jim Crow brutality to a manifestation of authentic civil rights. Not only must we remember what Viola did with her life, but the abuse she and her family suffered after her murder.
Heather Heyer was murdered two days ago, just as surely as Viola Liuzzo was 52 years ago, for the very same reasons and by the very same sort of savage beast. By yesterday, there were notices on at least one “alt-right” web site calling Heather a “fat slut” and blaming her weight for her inability to escape the on-coming car that killed her.
There can be no compromise with a disease like this. We either eradicate it, or it kills the nation we’ve spent so long trying to nurture into maturity.