Thousands march on the state capitol in Birmingham, Ala., led by Dr. Martin Luther King, and his wife Coretta Scott King (center) in March, 1965.

The Detroit housewife who moved
a nation toward racial justice

By Kay Houston / The Detroit News

Click for Slide Show

      A brutal attack by police on peaceful marchers in 1965 put a small Alabama town on the map, galvinized the American civil rights movement and created heroes and martyrs whose names live on today. The town was Selma and one of those heroes and martyrs was a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo.

      The clash on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma on March 7 of that year was captured dramatically on network television and focused the eyes of the nation for the first time on the brutality that blacks still faced from their own local governments in the south.
Anthony and Viola Liuzzo in a 1949 photo.

      Dr. Martin Luther King had organized the march with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to draw attention to the plight of blacks who were denied the right to vote.

      In the book, "Selma 1965," Charles E. Fager described the event. After Dr. King announced the planned march down Route 80 from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, then-Governor George Wallace banned the march and called out state troopers to block their path, despite assurances from march leaders that the demonstration would be peaceful. As the 600 marchers moved out from Brown Chapel African Church and started across the Pettus bridge, they could see the line of troopers spread shoulder to shoulder across the highway.

      At the command "troopers, advance" they charged into the crowd, swinging their billy clubs. The younger marchers escaped, the elderly were knocked to the pavement, wooden clubs thudding into their flesh. When other marchers came to their aid they were sprayed with clouds of tear gas. A sheriff's posse on horseback joined the fray using bullwhips, ropes and lengths of rubber tubing covered with barbed wire while pursuing the marchers through downtown.

      Network television captured the assault on Highway 80 for a shocked American public, clearly showing the peaceful marchers, the flailing police clubs, the stampeding horses, the jeering onlookers and the stricken, fleeing blacks.

      In Atlanta, an infuriated Dr. King sent out telegrams to every prominent clergyman sympathetic to the SCLC, reading in part, "In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call therefore, on clergy of all faiths, to join me in Selma."

      Religious groups from around the country sent representatives, "nuns in flowing habits, rabbinical students in yarmulkes, white-collared clergy from every denomination," according to a later Detroit News story.

      Ordinary people horrified by the attacks went to Selma to add their voices to the cry for justice. One who answered the call was a Detroit housewife, Viola Liuzzo, 40, wife of a Teamster official, and mother of five.
AP Photo
A group of Catholic nuns rests along the march route.

      King and the SCLC had won a court order allowing the march from Selma to Montgomery and directing the state to protect the marchers. However, the order limited the march to 300 people on a section of Highway 80 that was only two lanes wide. Gov. Wallace told the White House the state couldn't afford to pay the cost of mobilizing the National Guard for the march, giving President Johnson the opportunity he was looking for. He federalized 1,900 of Alabama's National Guard, authorized use of 2,000 regular army troops, as well as 200 FBI agents and U.S. marshals to protect the march.

      The Selma-Montgomery march started on March 21, the marchers camping at night wherever they could. Finally they arrived in Montgomery on March 24.

      Fager describes the dramatic scene: "As they neared Montgomery, the road widened, ending the 300 limitation and all through the afternoon cars and buses stopped along the line and discharged new marchers. There were thousands of them, exuberant and noisy, carrying banners and placards....When they arrived at the final campsite, the march was like a tide coming in, inevitable and relentless, inundating everything."

      Mrs. Luizzo watched the march move on to the Capitol on Thursday, March 25. She had spent the past week in Selma, working at the hospitality desk in Browen Chapel, using her green Oldsmobile to ferry people back and forth to Montgomery's airport.

      She had driven to Montgomery the night before to join the last leg of the march. She helped in the first aid station with the worn out marchers or those who had fainted from heat and exertion. She and Fr. Tim Deasy climbed a tower to view the marchers. The line stretched out, filling the street completely with no end in sight, heading toward the Capitol. She told him she had a premonition. "Something is going to happen today, I feel it. Somebody is going to get killed..." She repeated her premonition to another priest and group of nuns.

      All the important civil rights fighters were there -- Dr. King, John Lewis of SNCC, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks and others.
UPI Photo
The Montgomery County Mounted Posse wades into the marchers swinging batons. One deputy at left is swinging a cane.

      King delivered his speech, "How long will it take? . . . Not long, because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord..." King tried to deliver a petition for full voting rights to Gov. Wallace but troopers kept him out of the Capitol building. The governor's secretary came out and took it.

      After the march ended, thousands had to get out of the city before nightfall. Viola Liuzzo got her car and headed back to Selma with a load of passengers. She had not been following the civil rights workers' rules of the road very carefully over the past several days. She drove fast along the highway, stopping for gas at white-owned stations in Lowndes County. Her Michigan plates made her green Oldsmobile conspicuous and the army troops who served as protection were gone. A carload of whites pulled up behind her, bumping the rear of her car several times before passing and racing off. She commented to Leroy Moton, a black teenager who had been helping her drive, that she thought these local white folks were crazy.

      As soon as their passengers were dropped off at Brown Chapel in Selma, they headed back toward Montgomery for a second load. On the way out of town they stopped at a traffic light, and another car pulled alongside. In it were four Ku Klux Klansmen from Bessemer, a steel town near Birmingham, including FBI informer Gary Rowe, who was sitting in the back seat. Collie Leroy Wilkins looked out the window and saw Mrs. Liuzzo and her black companion stopped beside them. "Look there, baby brother," Wilkins said to Rowe, "I'll be damned. Look there."

      Eugene Thomas, who was driving the Klan car, said, "Let's get them." When the light changed they began chasing the Oldsmobile, careening through the darkened swamps of Lowndes County at almost 100 mph. Rowe later said he tried repeatedly to persuade the others to give up the pursuit, but Thomas insisted, "We're not going to give up, we're going to take that car."

      As the Klansmen closed in on their prey Thomas pulled out a pistol and handed it to Wilkins and told the others to draw their own weapons. Rowe tried once more to get them to abandon the game; but Thomas said "I done told you, baby brother, you're in the big time now." A moment later they pulled alongside the Oldsmobile. Wilkins put his arm out the window, Mrs. Liuzzo turned and looked straight at him and he fired twice through the glass. The fourth Klansman, William Eaton, emptied his pistol at the car. Rowe said he only pretended to fire his weapone. Then their car sped on away.
AP Photo
Mrs. Liuzzo was killed at this wheel of this car when Klansmen fired at her from a passing vehicle.

      Mrs. Liuzzo fell against the wheel, dead instantly from two bullets in the head, spattering blood over Moton, who grabbed the steering wheel and hit the brakes. The car swerved to the right, crashing through a ditch and coming to rest against an embankment.

      Moton turned off the lights and ignition and tried to rouse Mrs. Liuzzo. As he realized she was dead, he saw the other car come back and pull up beside the Oldsmobile. He played dead as the Klansmen shined a light into the car, then drove away. Moton left the car and began running down the highway toward Montgomery until he spotted a truck he recognized as belonging to fellow marchers. He climbed in, told what happened, and passed out cold.

      Within 24 hours, President Johnson was on television, personally announcing the arrest of the four assailants and vowing to exterminate the KKK.

      A March 28 Detroit News article gave profiles of the four men who were arrested:

  • Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr., 2l, single, self-employed auto mechanic. Had previous convictions. Not released on bail.
  • Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., 34, of Birmingham, Ala., divorced, unemployed, father of four children. (At the time, it was not known he was an FBI informant). Released on $50,000 bond.
  • Eugene Thomas, 42, worked at Fairfield Steel works; married, father of three children, free on $50,000 bond.
  • William Orville Eaton, 4l, retired steel worker, married, father of five children, free on $50,000 bond

          Since the Klansmen could not be charged with murder in federal courts, the Wilkins, Thomas and Eaton were charged in December 1965 under an 1870 law with conspiring to deprive Liuzzo of her civil rights.. An Alabama jury had already acquitted Wilkins of the murder of Liuzzo.

          Gary Rowe, who had been an FBI informer for five years, testified against the three in the federal trial. A lawyer for the KKK trio called Rowe a "traitor" but his testimony was convincing. On December 3, the three were convicted on criminal conspiracy charges in the death of a civil rights worker. President Johnson, Dr. King, and others hailed the verdict. The three Klansmen were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
    AP Photo
    The three Klansmen charged with killing Mrs. Liuzzo, from left, Collie LeRoy Wilkins Jr., Eugene Thomas, and William Orville Eaton.

          Things went differently in the Alabama court. Eugene Thomas was tried for murder in September, 1966 and acquitted. Wilkins was tried twice for murder, in May and October of 1965;, and was acquitted both times.

          Eaton died of a heart attack in 1966.

          Liuzzo's body was returned home to Detroit on March 27, 1965. A Detroit News reporter visited the home on Marlowe where her husband Anthony, daughter Penny, l8 and son Thomas, l3 were trying to cope. Viola's sister was caring for the youngest children, Sally, 6 and Anthony Jr., l0. Another daughter, Mrs. Mary Johnson, l7 was on her was to Detroit from Georgia.

          Shifts of Teamsters kept watch at the home and their wives cooked and cleaned. There were at least 1,000 telegrams delivered to the home and 15,000 arrived at Teamster headquarters from politicians, religious leaders, celebrities, and ordinary citizens. An aide to President Johnson called the family several times. Memorial services were planned.

          The evening before, Anthony Liuzzo talked with the president who told him the four Klansmen had been arrested. Liuzzo thanked Johnson and said, "I don't think she died in vain because this is going to be a battle, all out as far as I'm concerned...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."

          Fr. Deasy paid tribute to her: "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. In that vast assembly from all over the United States, I doubt if anyone equaled her in dedication, in action or in charity toward their fellow man. Mrs. Luizzo died in the service of Almighty God, performing works of charity. Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself."
    UPI Photo
    Gary Thomas Rowe, left, is escorted from the trial of the three Klansmen in Hayneville, Ala. Originally charged in the slaying, Rowe turned out to be an FBI informant and testified against the others.

    Epilogue

          In October 1977, the Liuzzo family filed a civil claim against the FBI, charging that Rowe, an FBI employee, had failed to prevent Mrs. Liuzzo's death and may have participated in the slaying.

          In September 1978, an Alabama grand jury indicted Rowe, then living under an assumed name in Georgia, in the shooting of Liuzzo.

          In December 198, Anthony Liuzzo, Viola's husband, died.

          In March of 1980, a judge allowed the Liuzzo family suit against the FBI to proceed.

          Rowe was tried twice for murder, one trial ended in a hung jury. He was acquitted the second time and is now living in Atlanta under an assumed name

          In May of 1983, a judge rejected the Liuzzo suit, saying there was "no evidence the FBI was in any type of joint venture with Rowe or conspiracy against Mrs. Liuzzo. Rowe's presence in the car was the principal reason why the crime was solved so quickly."

          In August 1983, the U.S. government billed the family for $79,873 in court costs in connection with the failed suit. It was later cut to $3,645 after an ACLU appeal on behalf of the family.

          Viola Liuzzo's name and those of 39 others is on a Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, three blocks from the capitol.


    Detroit News Photo
    Anthony Liuzzo, left, with daughter Peggy, 18, and son Tom, 13, receive calls of condolence at their home in Detroit.

    (This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)






    Rearview Mirror
    Researchers: Vivian Baulch, Linda Culpepper, Kay Houston, Anita Mack, Laurie Marzejka, Julie Morris, Jenny Nolan, Pat Zacharias, Wendy Culpepper
    Editorial and production: Larry Wright, Alex Vida
    ">