Viola Liuzzo was an American Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist. Despite being born white, Liuzzo had a deep sense of empathy and compassion for the African-Americans which was quite unique in itself as whites then seemed to abhor blacks. What initiated this empathy was the differential treatment meted out to African American despite living in the same country, same region and same city. Liuzzo came from a middle class background. Her family suffered from major financial crisis during the Great Depression. Despite being financially unstable and struggling in her life for a living, Liuzzo realized that the whites had certain essential advantages that were fundamentally not enjoyed by the African-Americans. Such racial discrimination and injustice was enough to stir the social activist inLiuzzo. She soon became politically and socially active, fighting for African-American community. She became a member of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though Liuzzo knew the dangers involved, she did not back out and instead selflessly served the cause. On March 1965, she died while serving the cause. Posthumously, she was declared a martyre who died serving against racial injustice and discrimination. She was among the 40 civil rights activists honoured on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. She was also inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 2006.
Childhood & Early Life
Viola Liuzzo was bornViola Fauver Gregg on April 11, 1925, in the small town of California, Pennsylvania, to Heber Ernest Gregg and Eva Wilson. Her father was a coal miner and World War I veteran, and her mother was a teacher. She was the eldest daughter of her parents and had a younger sister, Rose Mary.
Viola Liuzzo since early years witnessed major financial difficulties. Great Depression had caused the family to descend into poverty. They moved from Georgia to Chattanooga for work. They lived miserly and interrible conditions.
Academically, Viola could never complete a whole year in same school, as her family constantly shifted for work. Early in her life, she realized the unjustness that prevailed. Despite being poor and in deprived condition, the family still had some social privileges and amenities that were denied to African Americans.
The discrimination prevalent against African Americans laid the roots of activism in Liuzzo. Though her social activism never impressed her dad, she nevertheless dropped out of school after tenth to pursue her social activities.
In 1941, the family moved to Michigan. The year was quite an eventful one in Viola’s life.She ran away from home to marry an elderly man but the marriage did not last for more than one day. She then returned to her family in Detroit, Michigan.
During that time, Detroit suffered from major violence and riots, due to the constant tension between blacks and whites. Growing up in such a scenario, strengthened the resolve of Viola Liuzzo to do something about the situation of blacks in the society
Returning to studies, Liuzzo attended the Carnegie Institute in Detroit, Michigan. In 1962, she enrolled for a part-time course at Wayne State University.
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Upon completing her studies, in 1964, Liuzzo enrolled at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit. She also joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she befriended Sarah Evans, an African-American woman.
Along with Evans, shewas passionately involved in civil rights movement. She organized various conferences and protest. She single-handedly planned the Detroit protest against Detroit laws that allowed students to easily drop out of school.Taking them out of school, she purposely homeschooled them for two months. For the act, she was arrested, but pleaded guilty and was put on probation.
In February 1965, an African-American lad, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot dead by state troopers. His death stirred a series of protest and fight for civil rights. A protest march was scheduled by Southern Christian Leadership Conference during which the marchers wereattacked by state and local police officers. The day was later called ‘Bloody Sunday’, as more than 600 marchers were brutally assaulted by the troopers.
‘Bloody Sunday’ led to a second protest march a few days later. This time however Martin Luther King Jr. headed the march to Montgomery from Selma along with other 1,500 civil rights advocates. Upon encountering state police along the way, they returned to Selma. Same night, a white group beat James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston and civil rights activist to death.
Reed’s death stirred civil right activists further who organized a third protest in Wayne State of which Viola Liuzzowas a part.She was tasked with the duty of providing aid to various locations, welcoming and recruiting new volunteers and transporting them and the marchers to and from airports, bus terminals and train stations in her car.Rev Martin Luther King Jr. headed the march.
The third march was organized on March 21, 1965, where more than 3000 people took part. It took the protesters five days to reach from their destination, Selma, from Montgomery. The main aim of the march was to campaign for voting rights of African-Americans in South America. Unlike the previous two marches, the security arrangements were upped this time as US Army and National Guard troops took their positions.
ViolaLiuzzo marched for the entire day on Day 1 but later on assumed her duties of providing help at first aid station. On Day 4, she rejoined the march four miles from the end, where a ‘Night of the Stars’ celebration was held. On Day 5, Viola and other marchers reached the state capitol building, thus making the march a big hit.
After the successful conclusion of the third march, Viola Liuzzo resumed her duty of transferring volunteers and marchers back to Selma from Montgomery in her car. On her return journey, Liuzzo was attacked by a group of men belonging to Ku Klux Klan. Since she was travelling with a black man, the sight infuriated them so much that they shot her dead.
Personal Life & Legacy
Viola Liuzzo first marriage was at the age of 16 to an older man. However, the marriage lasted not more than one day.
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In 1943, she married George Argyris, a restaurant manager. The couple was blessed with two children, Penny and Evangeline Mary. The marriage however, did not last long and the two divorced in 1949.
Her third husband Anthony Liuzzo was a Teamsters union business agent. The couple had three children, Tommy, Anthony, Jr., and Sally.
She was shot dead by the members of the Ku Klux Klan on 25 March 1965, in Selma, Alabama.
Her funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on March 30, 1965 in Detroit.Prominent members from both the civil rights movement and government came in to pay their respectsher. She was later buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.
After her death, her friend Sarah Evans served as the permanent caretaker of Viola’s five young children.
Posthumously, investigation of her murder was carried out. Though efforts were made to discredit Viola Liuzzo, truth prevailed. President Lyndon Johnson ordered an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1991, she was honoured by the Women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with a marker on the Highway 80, where she was murdered in the Ku Klux Klan attack in 1965.
Her name has been included as part of the Civil Rights Memorial, a monument in Montgomery, Alabama. She was also inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame.
In 2015, Wayne State University bestowed Viola Liuzzo with its first posthumous honorary doctorate degree.