Viola Liuzzo

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[A photograph of Viola Liuzzo as a young woman, retrieved from the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library http://www.lib.alasu.edu/lwlcdigitallib/liuzzo/bio.html]

Viola Liuzzo, born in Pennsylvania in 1925, was a woman whose life was launched into the public eye with her unfortunate and tragic death. Living a relatively quiet life until a few weeks prior to her death, she was a part-time university student, homemaker, and mother to five children. Throughout early 1965 she participated in marches in support of the Civil Rights Movement while living in Detroit, Michigan. However, when she witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday on television and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pleas for “all Americans [to] bear the burden” in the “struggle… for the soul of the nation,” she left her student- and family-life and traveled to Selma, Alabama. Once in Selma, Liuzzo lent her car and ability to drive to the Movement, along with greeting newcomers in the Movement’s hospitality suite.

On the night of March 25, 1965 Viola Liuzzo was horrifically murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. While driving with Leroy Moton, a nineteen year old Black activist, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, four members of the Ku Klux Klan — one of whom was Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the top FBI informant for the Alabama KKK for five years– fired shots into Liuzzo’s moving vehicle. Liuzzo died instantly, with Moton escaping with his life only by pretending to be dead. They were targeted because Liuzzo, a White woman, and Moton, a young Black man, were breaking Jim Crow social mores that dictated the lives of everyone in the South by riding alone in a car together.

The FBI began an investigation into Liuzzo’s death, but Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. had all charges dropped against him and instead was revealed to be an FBI informant, eventually being given a $10,000 reward by the FBI for “his services.” Within hours, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke publicly about Liuzzo’s tragic murder, her White womanhood playing a key role in the attention that was paid to her death. Despite her death serving as a catapult to change legislation regarding the deaths of Civil Rights activists in the United States, it also brought unwanted attention to Johnson’s Administration and the FBI, with questions circulating as to why Rowe was illegally involved with the KKK and had not stopped the attack against Liuzzo and Moton. In the words of historian Gary May, “[t]o divert attention away from his informant… Hoover [the Director of the FBI at the time] created a more alluring subject for media attention. He and his men worked quickly to transform Viola Liuzzo, mother of five and part-time college student, into a blond seductress who came south not to fight for civil rights but instead to sleep with black men… None of this was true, but Hoover’s files eventually wound up in Klan literature” with the “killers’ attorneys distribut[ing] the hate-filled pamphlets to reporters,” making “Liuzzo’s character a major issue when their clients came to trial” (146).

Liuzzo’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, ending with her untimely death at the hands of White terrorists, is demonstrative of how White womanhood was understood during the 1960s in relation to Black masculinity; to activism and its often deadly consequences; to Southern narratives of sexuality; and to the ways in which White Americans were awoken to the oppression Black Americans faced often only through the violence that televisions projected into living rooms across the United States. It is important for us as historians to tell the stories of women like Liuzzo, while simultaneously being cautious to not replicate the imbalanced attention that was paid to her death versus the deaths of countless Black American activists that often go unnamed in modern histories of struggle and oppression in the United States.

~ M

Bibliography

Federal Investigation Bureau. Accessed March 25, 2016. https://vault.fbi.gov/Viola%20Liuzzo.

May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Stanton, Mary. “Viola Liuzzo.” In Encyclopedia of Alabama. Last updated January 7, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2016. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1377.

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Viola Liuzzo

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