The color of civil rights

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The life and death of Viola Liuzzo

This is the third article in a three-part series on women in the civil rights movement.

By Deborah Goodwin

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The Selma Times-Journal

A white wife and mother of five with roots in the South, left safety in the north and gave her life to the civil rights movement.

On March 7, 1965, 600 civil rights marchers attempted to march peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the state capital in Montgomery in protest of discriminatory laws, which discouraged and prevented African American voting.

While watching the horror of marchers being beaten and attacked by state troopers on Bloody Sunday on her television in Detroit, Mich., Viola Liuzzo felt compelled to help.

Her children’s ages ranged from 18 to 6. Herrington said her mother explained to her family that she was &8220;going to help down at the march.&8221;

Herrington said she wanted to go with her mother but was not allowed to.

Leaving her family behind, Liuzzo drove to Selma to aid in the civil rights movement.

On March 24, marchers &045; Liuzzo among them &045; reached Montgomery and spent the night at St. Jude complex. The next day, the protesters were 25,000 strong and from the steps of the Capitol, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of his most remembered speeches, &8220;How long, not long,&8221; according to

Liuzzo allowed her 1963 Oldsmobile to be used to shuttle marchers to the airport and to Selma when the march was over. Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old black man, was in the car with Liuzzo on a trip from Montgomery to Selma.

Liuzzo and Moton were chased by a carload of Ku Klux Klan members for 20 miles, according to reports. The Klansmen pulled alongside Liuzzo’s car and shot her twice in the head. Moton escaped injury.

Lowery also participated in the Selma to Montgomery March.

Liuzzo’s sister, Rose Mary Lemming, Herrington and her sister, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, were in Selma during this year’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee March 3 on a Heritage Tour, which Lowery has organized every year since 1987.

The two-day bus tour stopped at monuments in Birmingham, Marion, Montgomery, Tuskegee and Selma where the tourists were treated to lunch at Selma High School.

Both Lilleboe and Herrington have made pilgrimages to Alabama as monuments have gone up in honor of their mother.

According to Herrington, Liuzzo’s husband Anthony was notified of his wife’s death by a phone call at midnight.

Lemming recalls being in Ypsilanti, Mich., at the time of her sister’s death.

The Klansmen, Collie Wilkins, Gary Rowe, an undercover FBI agent, William Eaton and Eugene Thomas were arrested.

Despite Rowe’s testimony against the three other men, an Alabama jury acquitted the men of murder. President Lyndon Johnson arranged for Wilkins, Eaton and Thomas to be charged with depriving Liuzzo of her civil rights. They were found guilty and served 10 years in prison.

Herrington and Lilleboe agreed that they don’t think they will ever know all of the circumstances behind their mother’s death.

According to Lilleboe, they have looked at FBI files that have information blacked out.

Liuzzo was killed just weeks before her 40th birthday, which was on April 11.

According to Herrington, her mother’s best friend, a black woman by the name of Sarah, became the mother figure for her and siblings, Mary, Tommy, Tony and Sally.

Just 18 at the time, Herrington said she felt somewhat cheated by having her mother taken from her.

Lilleboe said for a long time, &8220; I felt deprived of my mother’s love.&8221;

Lilleboe said she has come to appreciate what her mother’s death has brought about.