Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo (April 11, 1925-March 25, 1965), a Unitarian Universalist committed to work for education and economic justice, gave her life for the cause of civil rights. The 39-year-old mother of five was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Viola was born on April 11, 1925, in California, Pennsylvania. Her father, Heber Ernest Gregg, of Scottish, Irish and Native American descent, was once a mineworker, but lost his job when he lost his hand in an accident. Her mother, Eva Wilson Gregg, of German and English descent, was a teacher. The family, moving several times, lived in Tennessee and Georgia and perhaps other parts of the South. Viola grew up in poverty and in the midst of racial segregation, discrimination and hatred. At age six, when her mother was manager of a small Georgia grocery store, Viola took money from the cash register and gave it to a black child whose family was even poorer than her own.
During the early months of World War II, Heber Gregg moved his family to Ypsilanti, Michigan so that he could work at a bomber factory. Shortly afterward, inspired by posters depicting Rosie the Riveter, Viola moved to Detroit to look for war work. At work in a cafeteria, she met George Argyris whom she married in early 1943. (She had been married once before—for only a day—at age 16.) A week after the wedding, she met Sarah Evans, an African American woman who became her closest friend. The two had much in common, including childhood in the South. Viola gave birth to two daughters, Penny and Evangeline Mary, in 1946 and 1947. Evans cared for the children while Viola worked as a waitress.
In 1949 George and Viola divorced. Two years later she married Anthony James Liuzzo, a union organizer for the Teamsters. They had three children: Tommy, born in 1951, Anthony, Jr. in 1955, and Sally in 1958. Jim legally adopted Penny and Mary, children of Viola's previous marriage, in 1956. Evans worked as the Liuzzo family's full-time nanny and housekeeper.
At age 35 Liuzzo, a high school dropout, trained for a career as a medical laboratory assistant at the Carnegie Institute of Detroit, 1961-62. In 1963, to further enhance her education, she enrolled in classes at Wayne State University.
Liuzzo was also active in local efforts on behalf of reform in education and economic justice. Twice she was arrested, pleaded guilty, and insisted on a trial to publicize the causes for which she was an advocate. Evans said of her friend, "Viola Liuzzo lived a life that combined the care of her family and her home with a concern for the world around her. This involvement with her times was not always understood by her friends; nor was it appreciated by those around her."
In 1964 Liuzzo began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, two blocks from the Wayne State campus, and, through Evans, became active in the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). That same year Evans and Liuzzo drove to New York City to attend a United Nations Seminar on civil rights sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
Liuzzo's spiritual journey included putting hands to work. Unchurched as a child, she had converted to Roman Catholicism when she married Jim. Drawn to Roman Catholic mysticism for a time, she was later interested in Protestant evangelicalism. She sought personal relationship with a God active in the events of human history and herself wanted to make a difference in the world. At First Unitarian Universalist Liuzzo found a faith matching both her ideas and her longing to be of service. She became a full member on March 29, 1964. Many members of the church had been Freedom Riders. Daughter Penny attended the young adult group's discussions.
In late February, 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young African-American, was fatally wounded by police following a voter rights demonstration in Marion, Alabama. In response the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a march of protest from Selma to the State capitol in Montgomery. On March 7, "Bloody Sunday," 500 peaceful and prayerful marchers were attacked and dispersed by Alabama State Troopers with billyclubs and gas grenades. King then called for any and all persons to come to Selma. His telegram to clergy all across the United States, and subsequent events, brought one hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers to Selma. Among the earliest to arrive was Rev. James Reeb, who was attacked on the street by a group of whites on March 9 and died two days later.
Liuzzo, with millions of other Americans, had seen on television the horror happening in the South. On March 8 she decided to go to Selma. Shortly afterward, she attended a memorial at First Unitarian Universalist for the Rev. Reeb. On March 16, after participating with daughter Penny and 250 Wayne students in a Selma sympathy march, Liuzzo called her husband and told him there were "too many people who just stand around talking," that she had to help, and that she was going to Selma for a week. She asked Evans to explain to her children where their mother had gone and to tell them she would call home every night. Evans warned that she could be killed. Liuzzo replied simply, "I want to be part of it."
The drive to Selma took three days. Liuzzo presented herself at the Roy Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church, "Brown Chapel," and volunteered to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She was asked to serve at the hospitality desk, welcoming and registering other volunteers. On Sunday, March 21, she joined 3,000 other marchers as, five abreast, they marched across the Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday, and began the trek towards Montgomery. On Monday and Tuesday she continued her work at Brown Chapel's registration desk and also made shuttle runs from the airport to the marchers' campsite. Afterward she served at the campsite's first-aid station.
On March 24 Liuzzo stayed overnight at St. Jude's, a complex of buildings including a Catholic Church, hospital and school, just inside the Montgomery city limits. From the church tower she watched the approach of 25,000 marchers. When she came down from the tower, unsettled and anxious, she told Timothy Deasy, one of the parish priests, "Father, I have a feeling of apprehension. Something is going to happen today. Someone is going to be killed."
Calmer after prayer, she joined the marchers, barefoot, for the last four miles to the capitol building in Montgomery. With everyone else she sang freedom songs and listened to the speeches. When the march was over, Liuzzo met civil rights worker Leroy Moton, who had been using her car all day as an airport shuttle. The two of them drove five passengers back to Selma. When they were dropped off, Viola volunteered to return Moton to Montgomery.
Viola's biographer, Mary Stanton, describes the ride to Selma. "Between the airport and Selma a car full of whites drove up behind them and banged into the bumper of the Oldsmobile several times before passing . . . When they stopped for gas, Moton remembered, white bystanders shouted insults at the integrated group. Further along, the driver of another car turned on his high beams and left them shining into Vi's rearview mirror. 'Two can play at that game,' she said and deliberately slowed up, making the offending car pass her. Finally, when another car pulled up alongside the Oldsmobile while one in front slowed down, Vi had to jam on her brakes. They were boxed in, one of the passengers remembers, but Mrs. Liuzzo seemed to be more annoyed than afraid. As they drove along Highway 80, Vi began singing freedom songs: 'And long before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.'"
Gary Thomas Rowe was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant and a member of the Klux Klan (KKK). According to his court testimony, events transpired as follows. After the passengers were delivered, he and three other members of a KKK "missionary squad"—Collie Leroy Wilkins, Jr., William Orville Eaton, and Eugene Thomas—spotted Liuzzo and Moton stopped at a traffic light in Selma. They followed her car for twenty miles. While she attempted to outrun her pursuers, she sang at the top of her lungs, "We Shall Overcome." About half way between Selma and Montgomery the four men pulled their car up next to hers and shot at her. Liuzzo was killed instantly. Her car rolled into a ditch. Moton escaped injury.
Jim Liuzzo learned of his wife's death at midnight. The following day President Lyndon Johnson called Jim to say, "I don't think she died in vain because this is going to be a battle, all out as far as I'm concerned." Jim told the President, "My wife died for a sacred battle, the rights of humanity. She had one concern and only one in mind. She took a quote from Abraham Lincoln that all men are created equal and that's the way she believed."
On March 27 a group of about 200 protesters, black and white, led by the Rev. James Orange of the SCLC marched to the Dallas County courthouse in Selma. The Rev. James Bevel told them, "[Viola Liuzzo] gave her life that freedom might be saved throughout this land." On March 28, at San Francisco's Grace Episcopal Cathedral, Martin Luther King said of Liuzzo, "If physical death is the price some must pay to save us and our white brothers from eternal death of the spirit, then no sacrifice could be more redemptive."UUA Selma Memorial Plaque
On March 29 the NAACP sponsored a memorial service for Liuzzo at the People's Community Church in Detroit. Fifteen hundred people attended, among them, Rosa Parks. On March 30 at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Detroit a high requiem mass was celebrated for Liuzzo. Dr. King was among the 750 people attending the televised service. Some Catholics protested the mass, citing Liuzzo's divorce. Father Deasy said. "I felt very strongly about this woman and her goodness. She inspired us all. Her energy, enthusiasm and compassion were contagious and put many of us to shame."
On April 5 the Wayne Friends of SNCC sponsored a memorial service for Liuzzo in the Community Arts Auditorium at Wayne State University.
After these tributes, attempts were made to discredit Liuzzo. Entirely false rumors spread that she was a member of the Communist party and that she had traveled to Selma to have sexual relations with men in the Civil Rights movement. No one of the four KKK members was convicted of murder. Rowe testified for the prosecution and thus received immunity. The other three were eventually given ten-year sentences, under federal law, for violation of Liuzzo's civil rights. From 1979-83 the Liuzzo children tried through legal action, unsuccessfully, to get the FBI to acknowledge complicity in the death of their mother.
In 2002, nearly forty years after their deaths, a Selma Memorial plaque, honoring Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, was dedicated at the UUA's Boston headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street.