Friday, January 23, 2015

Who Was Viola Liuzzo?

by Mary Stanton

The last ten minutes of the blockbuster Selma introduces a white woman killed on the last day of the 1965 Voting Rights March who became the only woman honored at Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial. Who was she?
In 1965 I was nineteen years old and living with my parents in Queens, New York. On March 26 we watched Walter Cronkite’s report about Viola Liuzzo, a thirty-nine-year-old Detroit housewife and mother of five who’d been murdered. Although President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation and directed the FBI to work around the clock to find her murderers, it took only days to transform this woman from victim to an outside agitator and symbol of recklessness. Why?
Liuzzo was shot by four Klansman, one who worked for the FBI. To cover the fact that the bureau had permitted a known violent racist to work undercover during a massive interracial march, J. Edgar Hoover fed a malicious public relations campaign that portrayed her as an unstable and immoral woman. Liuzzo became the perfect symbol of everything the Klan and much of the white South in 1965 detested. Liuzzo had traveled beyond the boundary of marriage and motherhood to volunteer for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference effort in Selma. With her Michigan plates and a young male black SCLC volunteer riding in the front seat beside her, she was the image of a race traitor, and thus had forfeited her right to the protection of “sacred white womanhood.” The message that the Klansmen sent to local activists by killing her and her black fellow volunteer was that things were not going to change. The message to outsiders was that a trip South to agitate could prove fatal.
Liuzzo’s violent death magnified the nation’s nervous concerns about social justice, civil rights, antiwar activism, and feminism. Advocating racial justice was a radical activity in 1965. A majority of white Americans believed that even if it was justified, the civil rights movement was moving too fast. Liuzzo’s activism could not be written off as youthful enthusiasm. She was a middle-aged wife and mother, and her actions threatened the stability of the family. White American women could not afford to sympathize with her, as such would have invited too many questions about their own lives.
Ironically, while Liuzzo was targeted for execution because she provided such a powerful symbol for opponents of the civil rights movement, she was of little symbolic value for the movement itself. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, the three young men who were murdered in Mississippi the summer before, were positive symbols. Goodman was a white college activist, Schwerner a white social worker, and Chaney a black community worker. Their families were proud of their activism; Liuzzo’s husband, by contrast, was conflicted about the causes his wife chose to support.
In March 1965, as I watched the CBS Evening News, it was Liuzzo’s personal courage that struck me. Here was someone who would not be trapped, smothered, or suffocated. I would like to have known somebody like that--a woman who wasn’t afraid.
Years passed before I came to fully appreciate Liuzzo’s dedication to social justice. When I was a young woman, she gave me hope that perhaps my life need not be constricted by the boundaries of appropriateness, acceptability, and inoffensiveness. I didn’t believe that was possible in those days. I could say with Betty Friedan, who published The Feminine Mystique that year, that “I never knew a woman, when I was growing up, who used her mind, played her own part in the world, and also loved, and had children." What resonated for me was Liuzzo’s determination to make her life count. I tried not to think too much about what that determination had cost her.
In the 1990s, in the course of researching Viola Liuzzo’s life for the biography From Selma To Sorrow, I discovered that she possessed deep sensibilities, a short temper, abiding warmth, painful restlessness, and a strong moral compass. Her untimely death provided the impetus for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a good bit of inspiration for a young woman coming of age in Queens.

Mary Stanton is the author of From Selma To Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo (University of Georgia Press, 1998)