The Lives They Touched

The year after I graduated college, I lived out in the East Bay area. I was interning at a magazine, for free, and temping (among various other jobs) to support myself.

At one of my temping gigs I befriended a woman from Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Her name was Gloria. She had long black hair, wore lots of leather and makeup, and listened to hard rock and heavy metal. I think she had a son, though I can’t remember for sure. A working-class Italian-American from back East, we didn’t have much in common except a shared love for complaining about our job and trash-talking our boss. Even so, she wound up telling me a lot about her personal life (I have vague memories of  a problematic boyfriend on the scene). She also lent me a cookbook of Italian recipes that I never returned to her.

One day, Gloria furtively pulled out a folder of clippings and told me they were about her Aunt Viola. Viola had been a mother of five in Michigan who went south in the 1960s to march for voting rights for black Americans. Gloria told me she was shot and killed. Gloria was clearly proud of her aunt, but she also said that not everyone in her family felt the same way. I had never heard of her aunt or this story.

Viola_LiuzzoI forgot about both, until years later, when I learned the story of Viola Liuzzo. I put two and two together and realized that Gloria was Viola’s niece. For many years, Liuzzo was one of the forgotten heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. But apparently she now has received her due in the film Selma, which I haven’t seen yet.


Mary Stanton wrote a lovely piece on Liuzzo back in 1999, which was revived and posted this month, but before I provide some excerpts here, I want to come back to Gloria. As far I could tell, Gloria was not a political person. She was mostly a survivor—of bad jobs, bad relationships, bad luck. Even so, she had strong feelings about racism and racial equality, rooted in a sense of obligation to her murdered aunt. Just a small reminder of how many lives a radical movement of social change like the Civil Rights Movement can touch.

From Stanton’s piece:

A red and white Impala full of angry Klansmen prowled the streets of Selma, Alabama, on the evening of March 25, 1965. The Voting Rights March had ended that afternoon, and federal troops were everywhere. Frustrated by the tight security, the Klansmen decided to return to Montgomery. Maybe they could provoke some trouble there.

Turning onto Water Avenue, they spotted a white woman in a car with a black man stopped at a traffic light. Viola Liuzzo and Leroy Moton were also heading back to Montgomery, to pick up a group of marchers who were waiting to return to Selma.

“Will you look at that,” one of the Klansmen said. “They’re going to park someplace together. I’ll be a son of a bitch. Let’s take ’em.”

Weeks later, one of the Klansmen — Tommy Rowe — would tell a grand jury that they followed Mrs Luizzo’s car along Highway 80 for the next 20 miles. When she realized she was being tailed, she accelerated to almost 90 miles an hour. They tried to pull alongside her green Oldsmobile four times, but each time they were forced to drop back — first by a jeep load of National Guardsmen, next by a highway patrol unit, then by a crowd of black marchers trying to cross the highway, and finally by a truck in the oncoming lane.

“That lady just hauled ass,” Rowe testified. “I mean she put the gas to it. As we went across a bridge and some curves, I remember seeing a Jet Drive-In Restaurant on my right hand side. I seen the brakes just flash one time and I though she was going to stop there. She didn’t … she was just erratic … Then we got pretty much even with the car and the lady just turned her head solid all the way around and looked at us. I will never forget it in my lifetime, and her mouth flew open like she — in my heart I’ve always said she was saying, “Oh God,” or something like that … You could tell she was startled. At that point Wilkins fired a shot.”

Viola Liuzzo, a housewife and mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, was killed instantly. Leroy Moton, covered with her blood, escaped by pretending to be dead when the murderers came back.

Because the Impala filled with Klansmen (including Tommy Rowe, who was on the FBI informer payroll) spotted Liuzzo leaving Selma with a black man sitting in the front seat of her car, she lost her life. And because the Birmingham FBI tried to cover up their carelessness in permitting Rowe — a known violent racist — to work undercover and unsupervised during the march, she also lost her reputation.

FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover himself crafted a malicious public relations campaign to blacken Liuzzo’s name in an effort to deflect attention from his Bureau. He successfully shifted the country’s concern from a brutal murder to a question of Liuzzo’s morals.

Hoover was desperate, and for good reason. He had to bury the fact that Rowe had telephoned the FBI on the day of the Liuzzo murder to report that he was going to Montgomery with other Klansmen, and that violence was planned. While Rowe claimed not to have known exactly what the plans were, he said Grand Dragon Robert Creel told him personally, “Tommy, this here is probably going to be one of the greatest days of Klan history.” That remark later led to speculation (never substantiated) that the Klansmen were scouting for an opportunity to kill a much more prominent figure — possibly Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hoover eagerly accepted Klan assistance in generating ugly rumors about Viola Liuzzo, and seduced the American press with a series of carefully engineered “leaks.” His caricature of Liuzzo as a spoiled, neurotic woman who had abandoned her family to run off on a freedom march took hold. Years of unrelenting accusations of her alleged emotional instability, drug abuse, adultery, and child abandonment nearly destroyed her husband and five children.

Despised as an “outside agitator,” Viola Gregg Liuzzo was in fact raised in rural Georgia and Tennessee. She grew up during the Depression in a Jim Crow culture of segregated schools, movie theaters, department store dressing rooms, water fountains, and churches. Her family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1941 in search of war work at Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant. In 1942, 18-year-old “Vi” Gregg moved on to Detroit by herself, where she met Sarah Evans, who would be her closest friend for 20 years.

Sarah Evans, a black woman from Mississippi, encouraged Vi to join the NAACP, begged her not to go to Selma, and ultimately raised Vi’s youngest daughter Sally, who was only six when her mother was murdered.

Until 1963, Vi Liuzzo lived a somewhat ordinary life. She kept house for her husband, Jim, a business agent for the Teamsters, and helped her five children with their homework, planned birthday parties, took the girls antiquing and the boys camping, and went back to work as a hospital lab technician when Sally started school. Realizing that more education would allow her to advance, Vi — a high school dropout — took and passed the admission test to Wayne State University.

At Wayne State, a wider world opened to her. She read Plato, who defined courage as knowledge that involves a willingness to act, and Thoreau, who believed that a creative minority could start a moral revolution.

Even though she was Roman Catholic, Vi began attending services at the First Unitarian Universalist Church just two blocks from the Wayne Campus. It was a congregation committed to social justice; many were former Freedom Riders. She also attended weekly open houses hosted by chaplain Malcolm Boyd, who defined himself as a “Christian existentialist:” “We are what we do,” Rev. Boyd told his students, “not what we think or say.”

In this morally-charged atmosphere, Vi Liuzzo made her decision to respond to Dr. King’s national call for help. She volunteered for the transportation service with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On her first day in Selma, she met fellow volunteer Leroy Moton, 19. She would later be accused of having an affair with this young man, who was the same age as Sarah Evan’s grandson, Tyrone.


Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, the young men murdered during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, were already civil rights heroes by the time of Viola Liuzzo’s murder. They were all young men of promise. A white activist college student, a selfless white social worker, a black community worker determined to fight for the freedom of his people — these were positive images.

Viola Liuzzo, however, was too old, too pushy, too independent, and she trampled on too many social norms to be a hero. She’d ventured beyond the role of wife and mother to demonstrate on behalf of a social movement that a majority of white Americans felt was already moving “too fast.” Viola Liuzzo’s activism couldn’t be chalked up to youthful idealism. Hers threatened the family, the protected status of women, and the precarious balance of race relations.

Ironically, she’d been murdered precisely because she afforded such a clear symbol to the segregationists — a white female outside agitator driving after dark with a local black activist. This all resonated for them. In choosing her, the Klansmen sent a clear message that Northern whites and Southern blacks would understand.

In the cases of Goodman, Schwemer, and Chaney, the families worked hard to ensure that their sons would not be forgotten. All three families had been supportive of their sons’ involvement in the movement, while Jim Liuzzo had been more ambivalent.
After Vi’s murder, Jim found himself continually defending her reputation, refuting the vicious rumors, and trying to protect his children. He told a reporter for the Free Press,”My wife was a good woman. She’s never done anything to be ashamed of.” Two days after her funeral, a cross was burned on his lawn in Detroit.

Viola Liuzzo’s children were taunted by their classmates, shunned by their neighbors, and shamed by the cloud of suspicion that hung over their mother’s activism. She became the single most controversial of the civil rights martyrs.

I never forgot about her, about how angry people were at her. And I never forgot how they seemed to lose track of just who the victim was.

And gradually, I understood that Viola Liuzzo’s story is of an ordinary woman whose simple desire to be useful collided with America’s belief that change was happening too fast — and lost her life and her reputation for her trouble.

In this sense, we can see clearly in her life what author Melissa Fay Green once observed: “After the fact, historians may look back upon a season when a thousand lives, a hundred thousand lives, moved in unison; but in the beginning there are really only individuals, acting in isolation and uncertainty, out of necessity or idealism, unaware that they are living through an epoch.”



  1. kathybjones March 9, 2015 at 2:21 pm | #

    Thanks for posting this. I saw the movie and wanted to know more about her, since I hadn’t heard of her before. Will share.

  2. Nihal March 9, 2015 at 2:28 pm | #

    Thanks for sharing this, Corey. I’m curious if you’re cherishing your memories by cooking a recipe from the Italian cookbook that you never returned to Gloria, with heavy metal blaring in the background.

  3. aletheia33 March 9, 2015 at 2:49 pm | #

    no wonder she was not a political person. and no wonder she became a survivor of bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad luck. every member of that family is owed big time by the government of the u.s.a.

  4. Mario Savioni March 9, 2015 at 3:12 pm | #

    I love her.

  5. Roquentin March 9, 2015 at 3:31 pm | #

    Powerful stuff. I have yet to see Selma, but definitely want to. It’s hard to believe that gunning down a mother of five could have ever been treated so callously.

    On a side note, you meet some really interesting characters as coworkers, especially in low wage jobs. I spent much of high school working in an Olive Garden. There was a half Korean kid. He was a high school drop out, doing his best to keep drug problems in check. By the time I knew him he only smoked weed, but did so pretty much sunrise to sunset. He loved death and black metal and was a very talented musician. To hear him tell it, he had quit school because of the overwhelming racism and bullying he experienced in high school in a tiny Iowa town. The story seemed legit to me. He had worked at a Happy Chef for a while and told insane stories about waitresses cooking up coke in a spoon and injecting it on the clock. He had also worked as a mechanic for a while, but it hadn’t worked out. We drove through a blizzard to see a Clutch and Corrosion of Conformity concert one winter. We were both pretty stoned. It was stupid. I did a lot of stupid things back then. I have no idea what became of him.

    On the flipside I worked at a gas station with a Mexican guy who’d moved from East LA to Iowa. He was one of the most racist people I’ve ever met. He’d say things about black people you wouldn’t hear at a Klan meeting. His father had spent time in military prison, Ft. Leavenworth, where all the gangs were racial and he had passed the prejudices down to his son. He loved listening to Pink Floyd like no one I have met before or since. We’d talk about Pink Floyd for hours at a time, taking smoke breaks out front every hour on the hour (which lasted 15 minutes).

  6. jonnybutter March 9, 2015 at 3:35 pm | #

    Thanks for this post. It is just heartrending.

  7. uh...clem March 9, 2015 at 4:25 pm | #

    I’m pretty sure there is a documentary about viola liuzzo. I saw it on PBS within the last 2-3 years.

  8. Mary Hughes Thompson March 9, 2015 at 7:36 pm | #

    Thank you for sharing the story of this remarkable woman. I too was fascinated by her character on SELMA and wanted to know more about her. Did you ever see Gloria again? Sharing on Facebook & Twitter.

  9. Hangaku Gozen March 9, 2015 at 8:51 pm | #

    I wonder if it would have been harder to smear Viola Liuzzo if she hadn’t been a working-class Italian-American woman with no ties to an affluent family with political heft. Even in the 1970s, Italian Americans had to deal with ethnic slurs and jokes. I can still recall a diner in my hometown that had “dago sandwiches” on the menu, and as late as 1990 I saw at the Minnesota State Fair a stand serving “dagos.” (When I told the older woman behind the counter that their sign contained an ethnic slur, she just blinked at me. The Upper Midwest, which is still 90% northern European Christian, is incredibly naive about race and ethnicity.)

    This post saddened me, but I am glad to know more about Mrs. Liuzzo. I hope Gloria sees it and knows her aunt has finally been recognized as the heroine she always was.

  10. wetcasements March 9, 2015 at 11:19 pm | #

    An American hero.

  11. Bill Michtom March 10, 2015 at 2:11 am | #

    As it is time to change the name of the bridge over the Alabama River that was named for a Confederate general and KKK leader, it is time to change the name of the FBI headquarters from the name of the dedicated racist and murderer who ruined and ended so many lives while doing as little as possible to protect African American victims of racism.

    • Blue Stater March 10, 2015 at 10:28 pm | #

      Absolutely right.

  12. Bernie and Carol Wagner March 10, 2015 at 1:24 pm | #

    One of your best posts in a very long time. Thanks for sharing your story.

  13. thom March 10, 2015 at 1:24 pm | #

    This column provoked a profound reflection for me, part of which I share here and which continues at my blog

    I recall the murder of Viola Liuzzo mostly because it just made no sense to a 12-year old boy that humans would kill other humans anyway.

    The Holocaust was baffling to his young mind as he looked at grainy black and white encyclopedia pictures and he grappled with its terrible monstrosity as was war and killing itself: did not one of the Ten Commandments that he HAD TO MEMORIZE clearly demand “Thou Shalt Not Kill” — NO EXCEPTIONS? Yet “What Up” with all the exceptions? Did not his father and uncles and all the fathers of the neighborhood just fight in World War II? (Which the 12-year old boy now call “Imperialist War II”.) Plus the boy later learned that Hitler exterminated another seven million people beside the six million Jews, a diverse bunch ranging from homosexuals and Roma to communists, socialists, trade unionists, artists, intellectuals, dissidents, and renegade priests and pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Nienmoller.

    Contradictions, hypocrisies, things Just Didn’t Add-Up as the 12-year old boy grew up. And why in the world would anyone be AGAINST full rights for Negroes? Why indeed didn’t Negroes have full rights in the first place? The young asker of awkward and inconvenient questions was heading into a lifelong bout with trouble as he kept asking awkward and inconvenient questions and getting punished for it.

    The 12-year old boy remembered Viola Liuzzo because, for one reason, he found it hard to pronounce and spell her name. Viola was easy; it was the same as the musical instrument. But “Liuzzo” was tongue-tangling and difficult to spell: foreign-sounding. But her picture in the paper showed a “pretty, nice, white woman” and it was only years, maybe a decade later that he connected the name with Italian, Italy, and Italian-Americans.

    The trashing of Viola Liuzzo by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover I did NOT know. But why am I not surprised any more by the mortal sins of the deep, fascist state?…


  14. Anthony Liuzzo March 11, 2015 at 10:51 pm | #

    I remember the story well Viola was my mother. Many details of the “official version” are just plain lies. The forensics do not lie but the information about what the FBI did to our family is very true. The FBI made sure that my mother was not viewed as a heroine but as someone who went south to fool around. I have read over 20,000 pages of FBI documents pertaining to my mother’s murder.

    • Corey Robin March 11, 2015 at 11:46 pm | #

      Thanks very much, Anthony, for your comment. I’m truly honored to have you here.

    • BobS March 13, 2015 at 11:43 pm | #

      Mr.Liuzzo, I’m sorry for the death of your mother. I was 10 years old in 1965 living in suburban Detroit with a pair of liberal Democrats for parents, so from a very young age I have associated Viola Liuzzo with bravery and sacrifice. While your mom represents the best qualities of this country, it took me another 10 years or so to understand that J.Edgar Hoover represents the worst.

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