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The voting rights martyr who divided America

By John Blake, CNN
February 28, 2013 -- Updated 2244 GMT (0644 HKT)
Viola Liuzzo's murder made her a scapegoat. It also sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act, which may soon be overturned.
Viola Liuzzo's murder made her a scapegoat. It also sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act, which may soon be overturned.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • High court's voting rights debate omits role of one woman
  • Viola Liuzzo's murder helped spark Voting Rights Act passage
  • Detroit housewife's activism outraged nation
  • Liuzzo's family fought FBI coverup to clear her name

Editor's note: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week over a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The following is an edited excerpt from John Blake's 2004 book "Children of the Movement" about Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who was killed while working for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. This story contains objectionable language.

(CNN) -- On March 26, 1965, Penny Liuzzo was watching the "Donna Reed Show" at her home in Detroit when a wave of nausea suddenly swept over her. In an instant, she knew what had happened.

"Oh my God," she thought as she stood up and walked out of the room. "My mom's dead."

How far has America come on race?

When Penny's mother, Viola Liuzzo, had called home a week earlier to tell her family she was going to Selma, Alabama, Penny had been engulfed by a sense of dread. She tried to talk her mother out of going.

''I'm never going to see you again, Mom. I know it. I just feel it. Please let me go in your place. I'll go."

Liuzzo laughed off her daughter's fears. Viola had been determined to help marchers in Selma after watching newsreel footage of civil rights marchers being beaten there. She had cried after the newscast ended. ''I'm tired of sitting here watching people get beat up," she told her family before driving off to Selma.

The call came at midnight. After experiencing her bout of nausea, Penny had gone to bed but could not sleep. She heard her father answer the phone. "Penny, your mother's dead! Your mother's dead," he wailed.

Then something happened that Penny still cannot explain 40 years later. Her 6-year-old sister, Sally, walked into the bedroom and said, "No, Mama's not dead. I just saw her walking in the hall."

The murder of Viola Liuzzo was one of the most shocking moments in the civil rights movement. On a winding, isolated road outside Selma, Liuzzo was ambushed and shot to death by a car full of Ku Klux Klansmen.

Viola Liuzzo was murdered in this car on an isolated Alabama highway while she participated in a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.
Viola Liuzzo was murdered in this car on an isolated Alabama highway while she participated in a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.

She was murdered while giving a ride to a 19-year-old black man, Leroy Moton, one of many civil rights marchers she had driven around Selma. Liuzzo had joined the movement's carpool system soon after arriving in the small Alabama town. Liuzzo's murder became international news. Her photo became a fixture in history books. Her name has been inscribed on civil rights memorials throughout the United States.

But people had far less sympathy for Liuzzo when she was murdered. Hate mail flooded her family's Detroit home, accusing her of being a deranged communist. Crosses were burned in front of the home. Her husband, Anthony Liuzzo Sr., had to hire armed guards to protect his family.

A Ladies' Home Journal magazine survey taken right after Liuzzo's death asked its readers what kind of woman would leave her family for a civil rights demonstration. The magazine suggested that she had brought death on herself by leaving home -- and 55% of its readers agreed.

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"It was horrible," Penny says. "People sent [copies of] this magazine that showed her body in the car with the blood and bullet holes. They called her a white whore and a nigger lover, and said that she was having relations with black men."

Even Sally did not escape the public's wrath. Students threw rocks at her and taunted her on the way to school, Penny says.

The family says they were even more devastated when they learned years later who had initiated the public backlash -- J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. To absolve itself of culpability in her death -- an FBI informant was in the car with the men who killed Liuzzo -- the FBI released her psychiatric records and directed a smear campaign to suggest that Liuzzo was promiscuous.

"Your mother has not died in vain," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told Penny at her mother's funeral. Yet she wondered for years if that was true.

The loss of her mother and the public backlash shattered Penny's family. Her father never recovered. Her sisters and brothers struggled.

And Penny carried around a knot of bitterness for years.

The effect on Sally was brutal. "My heart just broke when Sally was 11 years old and we went to visit my mom's grave and she just sobbed on my shoulder, 'Please, tell me what she was like. I don't remember. I don't remember. Please, I can't remember her voice.'"

But Penny still has plenty of memories of her mother. As the eldest child, she spent the most time with her. Today she is a housewife and a mother of four sons living near Fresno, California, with her boyfriend, Bryce. She is a warm and open woman who loves to laugh. It's odd to connect a string of tragedies with such a cheerful woman. Now 66, she has struggled with diabetes and was once legally blind until laser surgery helped her see well enough to drive.

"She was always for the underdog," she says of her mother. "Once, our neighbors had a fire. She went around and took up a collection to replace the toys -- this was around Christmastime -- they had eight kids."

Mary Stanton, author of the definitive Liuzzo biography, "From Selma to Sorrow," says Viola Liuzzo discovered that a secretary where she worked had been laid off without severance pay. She gave the woman her entire paycheck hoping it would embarrass her employer into giving the woman severance. It didn't, and Liuzzo paid for her activism by losing her own job.

Viola Liuzzo was a restless person. She married at 16 but had it annulled the next day. She married again and had two daughters, Penny and Mary. Seven years later she was divorced again. In 1950, she married Anthony Liuzzo Sr., a Teamsters leader. They had three children, Anthony Jr., Thomas and Sally.

She was also ambitious. Viola Liuzzo wouldn't settle for being a housewife. Though she was a ninth-grade dropout, in 1961 she enrolled in night classes to become a medical assistant. She graduated with top honors. She was a member of the Catholic Church but left after a priest told her that a child she had miscarried would never see the face of God. She joined the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Stanton says she was intrigued by Liuzzo's refusal to play the part of the submissive housewife. While her neighbors were taking cooking classes or doing church volunteer work, Liuzzo was preparing for a career, crusading for workplace rights, and going back to college.

"She was one of these people who got really involved in everything she did," Stanton says. "They become like a vortex that sucks other people into their enthusiasm."

By 1965, Penny was becoming closer to her mom after some stormy adolescent years. "I just graduated from high school and we had just become friends," she says.

When Liuzzo decided to go to Selma, she did it in typically impulsive fashion. She was taking classes at Wayne State University when she called home. "I'm going," she cheerfully announced. "I'm on the way."

That's when Penny had her premonition. She tried to persuade her mother not to go, telling her that she would die. ''I'll pee on your grave," Liuzzo told her daughter, laughing. And off to Selma she drove.

There, Liuzzo was one of 2,000 marchers gathered in response to a plea from King. She plunged right in, joining the movement's transportation committee, ferrying civil rights marchers around Selma for six days. Some of those marchers were black men. Liuzzo had to be aware of the dangers of a white woman being seen in a car with a black man at the time, says David Truskoff, one of the marchers who met Liuzzo in Selma.

Truskoff, who would later write "The Second Civil War," says the Rev. James Reeb had just been murdered when Liuzzo arrived in Selma. Cars displaying swastikas drove by marchers constantly. White locals made obscene gestures at white women marchers walking next to black men.

The journalists who had assembled for the Selma march weren't much better, Truskoff says. The press trucks were "half-full of rednecks." Many of them had heard Gov. George Wallace publicly warn Alabamans that white women like Liuzzo who had come down from the North for the march would be going back home to give birth to black babies.

Truskoff says he warned the marchers that these journalists were trying to photograph marchers at night when they camped out in the open during the five-day, 50-mile march to Montgomery. "What some of these crackers really wanted to see were black men with white women in some of these sleeping bags."

The last time Truskoff saw Liuzzo was in a Selma church. She was standing before an applauding audience with a check in her hand. "She brought it up onto the stage and gave Hosea [Williams] a check from her husband's union," he says. "On her way back, there was a big cheer and applause. She was just beaming. She walked past me, nodding at me as if to say, 'We're going to win this thing.'"

On the last day of the march, Liuzzo joined the 3,200 people walking into Montgomery for a rousing rally capped by a speech by King. She then drove back to Selma with Moton and other marchers.

Liuzzo dropped off her passengers in Selma and returned with Moton to Montgomery to pick up more marchers. They were driving on U.S. 80 when a car filled with four white men pulled alongside Liuzzo's car. One of the men shot Liuzzo in the head, killing her instantly, according to police reports.

President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on television the next day to announce the arrest of four Ku Klux Klan members: Eugene Thomas, 43; William Eaton, 41; Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr., 21; and Thomas Rowe Jr., 34. Rowe, it was later disclosed, was an FBI informant.

The condemnation of Reeb's murder in Selma had been instantaneous and widespread. That was far from the case for Liuzzo. Racism, sexism and the FBI combined to provoke a backlash against her.

First, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted all four men of Liuzzo's murder. Then they were tried again under different charges. Their trial was moved to a different jurisdiction and three were sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating Liuzzo's civil rights. The fourth, Rowe, was not convicted after being granted immunity.

After the verdict, Stanton says, bumper stickers started appearing on cars and trucks in Lowndes County, where Liuzzo was murdered, saying, "Open Season."

The FBI then went after Liuzzo's reputation. Stanton says they tried to cover up for the fact that their informant in the car did nothing to prevent Liuzzo's murder. Hoover began telling President Johnson that Liuzzo was having sex with black men, was a drug addict, and had a husband who was involved in organized crime.

The FBI then leaked this misinformation to the press, which soon began writing stories questioning Liuzzo's mental health (she had once suffered a nervous breakdown) and her morality. Anthony Liuzzo found himself defending his wife's character to newspaper reporters. The Liuzzo family would only discover what the FBI had done years later, after obtaining documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Penny says her father was eaten away by the criticism of his wife. "It took the soul right out of him," she says. "He never was the same. He started drinking a lot."

Stanton says Anthony Liuzzo Sr. was viewed as a failure. "He was seen as a macho Teamster who couldn't keep his woman in line." He died in 1978, still tormented about the gossip surrounding Viola. For a decade he had been trying to persuade the FBI to return her wedding ring to him. They finally did so -- two years after he died.

The effect on the other family members also was devastating. Penny had two bad marriages; so did Sally. Penny says both married too quickly as a way of taking their minds off the loss of their mother. Sally was hit particularly hard by the death of her mother and, later, her father.

"Sally has just got a grip on her life and she's in her 40s," Penny says. "She was an orphan at 20."

Her two brothers, Anthony Jr. and Tommy, who were 13 and 10 at the time, later dropped out of high school. "They were devastated and they retreated from society," she says.

Anthony Liuzzo Jr., the eldest son, has periodically popped into public view since his mother's murder. In 1975, he filed a $2 million lawsuit against the FBI on behalf of himself and his siblings for the agency's complicity in his mother's death.

"My brother always said there was a government conspiracy, but I didn't believe him," she says. During the trial, the FBI admitted that it had shredded 10,000 pages of documents connected to Liuzzo's murder. Still, the FBI won. In 1983 a federal judge threw out the lawsuit and ordered the family to pay the government $80,000 in court costs. The judge later changed that demand after the television show "20/20" did a report on the trial and people became outraged at the judge's order.

Penny says she was shocked to learn about the FBI's role in her mother's death.

"At first, I thought they were the heroes," she says quietly. "I was disappointed. I didn't want it to be that way. ... I wanted America to be like our forefathers wanted it to be, and it's not." The court's decision changed the lives of her brothers as well, she says. "It drove my brothers nuts," she says. "They couldn't take it anymore."

For a time, Anthony Jr. was a leader in a militia faction. He doesn't talk publicly anymore, Penny says. "Ever since 9/11, he's gone way underground."

After her mother's death, Penny, too, felt as if she were being dragged into despair with the rest of her family. Once, when Penny was in a college political science class, she interrupted an instructor who was talking about justice in the South, telling him, "There is no justice in the South."

The teacher knew who Penny's mother was. "Every dog has its day," he told her.

Penny wondered if that were true, especially after her family lost the suit against the FBI and was forced to pay the court costs.

Katie Rager, Penny's longtime friend, says Penny was simmering with anger when they became friends. "She was angry at the government. She was angry at the KKK. We would just talk for hours and hours about how unfair it was, about how the people who murdered her mother took her away from her kids."

Penny admits that her mother's death made her pessimistic about her own future. "I prayed every night, 'God, don't take me away from my kids. Don't let me die until my kids are older.'"

She found some refuge in her faith. With Rager, she used to go to a little church near Fresno and read Bible verses about forgiveness. She began reading about Native American spirituality, which emphasized being grateful for every little thing in life.

Rager says that Penny gradually changed -- so much so that whenever Rager had a problem, she turned to Penny. "She came out of this cocoon of loathing, hate, and anger and just blossomed into this beautiful, empathetic person."

The bitterness may subside, but not Penny's sense of loss. Over the years, Penny says, she found herself dreaming about her mother. She misses her spark and energy. "Sometimes when I'm feeling blue, I wish I could call my mother up."

Viola Liuzzo\'s faith fed her activism. She was a Unitarian, and a plaque in her honor is at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston.
Viola Liuzzo's faith fed her activism. She was a Unitarian, and a plaque in her honor is at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston.

She has never been tempted to blame God for her mother's murder. "You can't blame the higher power for what man's free will does. We all have our paths to go down. She chose that path and God loved her. He must have."

Another way Penny overcame bitterness was thinking of her mother's attitude toward hate. Liuzzo had seen much of it growing up in the segregated South. "My mom said the best thing, and I took it to heart: 'Hate hurts the hater, not the hated. It eats you up. It's too consuming. It makes you so unhappy.'"

Motherhood gave Penny another reason not to be bitter. When Penny gave birth to her first son, she resolved not to let her anger infect her boys as it had the other men in her family. "How can you be a good mom and be hateful?" she says. "Adults who grow up prejudiced -- how did they learn that? Their parents were role models. You have to be a living example.''

Penny got her chance to be a living example with an unexpected encounter in court. During her family's suit against the government, Penny was giving a deposition when she encountered Eugene Thomas, one of the men arrested for the murder of her mother.

Penny was sitting outside the courtroom in a waiting room with her son John when Thomas walked into the room. At first, he just stood there and said nothing as he looked at her, Penny says. Then he asked her, "Can you forgive me?"

Penny paused. Then she said, "Yeah, I do."

Thomas' shoulders relaxed, and relief seemed to wash over his face. "Thank you," he said. Then he turned and walked out of the room. After she tells me that story, I ask Penny why she would so readily forgive the man who participated in the killing of her mother. Penny says she actually felt sorry for Thomas. He looked like he was in agony. "I didn't hesitate. I could see the look on his face. I'm not out to crush people. Everybody lives with their own torture.''

She didn't hesitate because she's now found something else to live for -- her sons. Penny says she doesn't want to hurt any more. So she's chosen to be grateful, not bitter. It's what her mother would have wanted.

"I really have a good life. I'm not the richest person in the world. But I have people who love and adore me. All four of my boys, I've never had a major problem with my kids. If God would say I'm going to grant you a gift for my life, I would never have come up with the gift he gave me."

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