The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

Daughter of civil rights worker murdered in Selma on racism, white supremacy and her mother's legacy

The killing of Heather Heyer, a white anti-racist activist, in Charlottesville last month was an echo of the death of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist who was murdered by KKK members in 1965. Viola’s daughter, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe talks to Michael Enright about her mother’s life, values and violent death -- and about the racism that afflicted the U.S. half a century ago, and is on the march again.
A memorial marker dedicated to the life of Viola Liuzzo stands along U.S. Route 80 in Lowndes County, Ala. Liuzzo was murdered by Klansmen on March 25, 1965, while driving 19-year-old Leroy Moton from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., following the completion of the five-day march from Selma to the capital. (AP Photo/The Casper Star-Tribune, Ryan Dorgan)

Heather Heyer was a 32-year-old social justice activist. She was protesting the so-called "Unite The Right" rally, attended by an assortment of alt-right, white nationalist and neo-Nazi demonstrators  in Charlottesville, Virginia… when an alleged white supremacist mowed her down with his car.

Her murder galvanized revulsion at the increasingly vocal and emboldened white supremacist movement in the United States.

A woman places flowers at an informal memorial to 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting against the white supremacist Unite the Right rally, August 13, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
It also reminded many people of another tragic death 52 years earlier at the height of the civil rights movement. 

Viola Liuzzo was a white civil rights activist from Michigan. She was a mother of five who was horrified by events in Selma, Alabama in early March, 1965 … the violent "Bloody Sunday" attacks by state troopers and police on civil rights marchers led by Martin Luther King.

She told her husband she would be going to Selma, heeding Dr. King's call for everyone who believed in justice and equality to join the struggle.

Ms. Liuzzo was one of thousands of people who marched 86 kilometres from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, to demand voting rights for African-Americans. 

Along with a young African-American man, she was helping to drive participants back to Selma from Montgomery on March 25. Four white men in another car — three of them members of the Ku Klux Klan and the other an FBI informant — pursued Liuzzo's car, overtook it … and shot her to death.

In this March 26, 1965 file photo, an Alabama state troopers car is parked on the side of the road near Lownsboro, Ala, where Viola Gregg Liuzzo of Detroit, was shot to death while enroute to Montgomery. (AP Photo/Jack Thornell, File)
The alleged triggerman, Collie Wilkins, was tried twice by all-white juries. Neither would convict him of Viola Liuzzo's murder, although the three Klansman did end up being tried for violating her civil rights, and convicted.

Her name isn't as prominent today as other civil rights martyrs, like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But her murder was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement — one that helped speed passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe was 17 when her mother was murdered. She's now a social justice activist and an advocate for non-violence. 

Here's an excerpt from her conversation with Michael. 

You were 17 when your mother died. Tell me about her. What sorts of things do you remember most about her?

Well, my mother was a different kind of mother in so many ways, from the things she taught us to the way she taught us… She was always a champion for human beings or any living thing. I've come to understand that her ability to interfere with suffering seemed to be the most important thing in her life. And she never hesitated if she saw suffering to take action, to do something to interfere with it.

She worked actively with the NAACP in Detroit, I understand…

Not really Michael. She was active in her own personal life. She joined the NAACP when she first came to Detroit, when she was 18 years old. And then, of course, she was a mother of five and that was primarily what she was doing. When my youngest sister Sallie started school, mom went back to school. And she was in nursing school at Wayne State University in Detroit at the time that she went down to Selma and was murdered.

Gregg Luizzo, a 39-year-old mother of five, was ambushed and killed by Klansmen in her car, as she was shuttling marchers in Selma on March 26, 1965. (AP Photo)
Where was the inspiration for her to get so involved in civil rights activism, because in the mid 60s of course everyone talked about and watched on on television the police dogs and the fire hoses and the Freedom Riders. But why did your mother get so involved?

My mother was raised in the South, in the Lookout Mountain area of Tennessee. [Her] mother was teaching at a a center for underprivileged kids that was started by the Brock Candy Company. After a few months, they opened the centre to children of colour. And [my mother] always used to tell us that she noticed she was treated badly for being poor but [that] the little black children were treated worse. And that was something that made an impression on her and I believe influenced her through her whole life. It was the only thing she ever told me about being poor.

Tell me about her decision to leave your family in Detroit and drive down to Alabama to help with the Selma march. Was everybody in favor of her going?

No. My dad, of course, was never in favor of mom getting involved in things that he felt or knew were dangerous. He said, you know, "You don't have to go. It's not your fight." And my mom said, "Oh, it's everybody's fight."

There was no thinking it over for her with something like that. She watched Bloody Sunday. She had always told all of us. We knew about Emmett Till. We knew about the bombing of the 16th Street Church. We knew about so many things that were going on. I read Black Like Me when I was 12 or 13 years old.

When Dr. King came on, we watched our fellow citizens being beaten and run over with dogs. That wasn't over in the 30-second clips we see on the news.

So, to my mother, the real question [was] why wasn't everybody going?

Did she talk to you and your siblings about her own personal safety? Did she say that she'd be all right and not to worry? How did she help you in that decision?

Yes, she did tell us not to worry. But my mom didn't show fear. [She] showed the same kind of matter of fact confidence that she had with anything that she did. And I don't think that really, as white children in the city of Detroit in that time, we could have had any sense ourselves of the danger.

There were thousands of people who took part in the Selma Montgomery March. Why did the Klan target her?

One of the things that I've often been told about the South, especially Selma, Alabama, is that the only thing that they hated more than the blacks was the white people that came to help them. And there was a young 19-year-old worker in the car with her. And the way the story goes — at least what a couple of the Klansmen said — was they spotted them and said "hey, there's a couple of the main characters" and began to follow her.

The idea that a white woman would have the nerve to drive down Selma and Montgomery highways with a black boy in the front seat of a car with her [made her] a target.

Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King (5th R), civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy (5th L), John Lewis (3rd L) and other civil and religious leaders, make their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 22, 1965 in Alabama, on the third leg of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks and represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. The first march took place on March 07, 1965 ("Bloody Sunday") when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police. (AFP/Getty Images)
There had been some other shootings and people got hurt. There was a clergyman, I understand, who was killed and that affected your mother quite a lot too.

About two weeks before my mother was killed, there was a young man from Marion, Alabama named Jimmy Lee Jackson. He was a young entrepreneur [and had] served in our military. He was in the movement to get voting rights. And the little group of demonstrators he was with were attacked by police and they began to rough up his mother and his grandfather. When he tried to interfere with that, he was shot in the abdomen and killed. He died a few days later.

I would guess that there are very very few people who know his name. The loss of a black life at that time really didn't seem to matter to anyone. And so two weeks later when my mother's murder became national news, I know how much pain we were in. I can only imagine how greater that pain would been had no one ever even acknowledged that she had lived, let alone been murdered.

That night, on March 25th, were you at home? Did your father get a phone call? How did you find out about your mother's death?

My mom had called us every night around the same time, and she had called that night. She was in Montgomery [and] they were celebrating. The march was over. Everybody went to bed.

Later that night, somewhere around midnight, dad got a call and they said, "Are you the husband of Viola Liuzzo? Yes? There has been an accident." Dad said, "Is it serious?" And they said "She's dead. That's all we know."

How did he break the news to his children — to you and your brothers and sisters?

He just started yelling "Mommy's dead! Mommy's dead!" Penny got up first and then my brothers came down and then my little 6-year-old sister Sally. And then the media was there, almost immediately.

I can't imagine what the moment was like. But it must have been a mixture of confusion and fear and horror. You're children — I mean, you're little people. How did you respond?

It's it's hard to grasp it. It was horror and disbelief certainly. But then things escalated so quickly that it just seemed to shake the foundations of everything that you've ever known or believed of in your life.

There was a lot of good people that sent condolences and offers to help us. But what I remember — what we remember — was the hatred.

They had to stop the mail from coming to the house. All the things that people said about my mother, what they wished for her and for our family, what they thought of her, what they thought of the whole movement — it was incomprehensible.

A cross was burned in our yard. Garbage was thrown at the house. My 6-year-old sister Sally had was stoned by middle class adult Americans.

And then I realized that the hatred I was getting a glimpse of was the hatred that the people my mother went to help lived with everyday of their lives and continue to live with today.

I want to talk for a few moments about the appalling J Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI. He launched a smear campaign against your mother, did he not?

He did. We initially believed that the FBI were heroes but there was a horrible smear campaign that was started. There were police photos of my mom in a Klan magazine being mailed to us within days of her murder and rumors about what she was doing down there. That was from the FBI files. That was J Edgar Hoover.

When the president was asking him if he should call our family to offer condolences, Hoover said, "Well, you know, you might want to think twice about that. After all the husband is a Teamster strongarm with mafia ties… and the woman was sitting so close to the negro buck in the car that it had the appearance of a necking party ... and there were marks in her arms that could be from taking dope."

John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
And then if you add onto that the Klan propaganda that said that the march itself was nothing but a big orgy...

The worst of that though was that we found out who this informant was in the car. First of all, the FBI took over the investigation immediately. They had the murder weapon but they never took fingerprints. The FBI, the chief law enforcement agency of the United States of America, and they forgot to take fingerprints.

As we began to study and COINTELPRO came out in the 70s where they were investigating the use of informants, this particular informant [was] Gary Thomas Rowe. He was also identified as being involved in the Birmingham Street church bombings before. That's where the four little girls were killed. He was also on Life Magazine. You've probably seen that picture of the Freedom Riders being beaten with lead bats.

When all of this was happening, what did you and your brothers and sisters think about America and about racism and about the horror?

I never connected racism as part of my country. I thought of the marchers and of Dr. King as the patriots. Let's not forget, despite all of this, that march was successful. The evidence for my family — one of the most pivotal moments in our lives since that murder — was Barack Obama and watching that banner come across the TV: 44th president of the United States.

We were crying and joyful. And every drop of blood, every bit of suffering, every life, every injury — at that moment, we could say was worth it, because that happened in our lifetimes.

Mary, when you heard about the torches and the marches and the Klan in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer. What did you think of? What was your reaction?

In a way, it's stunning, but in a way it wasn't a big surprise. Things had been escalating, to me noticeably, since the election of Barack Obama. And then we had Black Lives Matter. There was no denying that there was something very very wrong. And then the voting rights march was disassembled. We should have been on the streets by the millions over those things. I'm not trying to scold anybody or blame anybody. But our voice — our voice — that's one of the things that America has given its people that works to this day.

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 19: Just one week after the violent 'Unite the Right' rally in Virginia that left one woman dead and dozens more injured, people have come out in solidarity with Charlottesville and to protect their neighborhoods. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
What has happened with Heather and things like that has awakened a lot of people that were feeling comfortable. But once again the death of a white girl brought much greater reaction than any of the murders of the young blacks have brought in.

What's happening right now is just bringing these people that have been in hiding to the forefront. It's not a new thing. Those are the same different people: same ideology and same energy that was ruling the south in the 60s.

But how do you keep up the fight, having gone through what you went through with the murder of your mother? You're out there in Oregon. The civil war in the United States seemingly has never ended. The country is split. Why don't you just say the hell with it, I don't want anything more to do with this. They took away my mom. That's enough.

If I was black I wouldn't have a choice. If I was a black woman here and had gone through everything I've gone through and they have, I wouldn't have the choice to quit. Because I'd be reminded every time I walked out my door or every time I picked up a newspaper. Every time I looked on TV and saw people like we saw in Charlottesville. I can't quit. I mean Heather's mother said the same thing. She said, "They think they weakened the fight. They strengthened it, because I'll never let her death just be a death."

Did you ever get in touch with Leroy Moton, the young 19-year-old who was in the car who was also wounded?

Yeah, I met Leroy for the first time in 2013. People had told him to stay away.

I met him. We held each other and cried.

Family members of Rev. James Reeb meet with Leroy Moton on Thursday, March 5, 2015, during a memorial at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Ala. Moton was a 19-year-old passenger in Viola Liuzzo's car when she was shot and killed by Klansmen on March 25, 1965. (AP Photo/The Casper Star-Tribune, Ryan Dorgan)
You know, Leroy was a 19-year-old boy who was probably a hundred times more afraid to get in my mother's car than she was to let him in. And I believe that he has lived a life of hell and terror since that moment. All I felt was compassion and there was a certain beautiful connection to know that he was with my mom.

I went to the south just specifically to talk to people that spent the last days of my mother's life with her. I wanted to get the real story, not the FBI's published story.

You go back to Selma quite often. You went there for the 50th anniversary a couple of years ago.

I always told people I feel closer to my mother there than I ever did anywhere, even in our home in Detroit. And I realized why. My mother is alive there.

When I first went there, I was received and loved and nurtured and taught and mentored. I was made whole again. I thought the impact of what my mother did was so extraordinary that to this day, 52 years later, they would like part the waters for me if they could.

People visit the Viola Liuzzo memorial on the side of U.S. highway 80 on March 7, 2015 in Lowndes County, Alabama. Selma was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march that resulted in a violent confrontation with police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
It is an honor to meet you on the radio, madam. Thank you.

Thank you. I'm honored to talk to you too. And I just want to say, the CBC has been with my family from the beginning. And we've had several good pieces of work that we've done together. So I'm very grateful and honored to be talking to you also.

To hear the full conversation, click 'listen' above. 


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