That night in Marion, Moton, 19, was lucky. Snatched off the street by police, he was tossed, uninjured, into a small jail cell. Though a resident of Selma, a half-hour’s drive from Marion, he passed the night listening to white officers who strolled past his cell describe the violence they planned to wreak on him for being an “outside agitator.” Alone and afraid, Moton had no idea whether his mother or march organizers even knew he’d been arrested. He was released about 10 a.m. the next day.
Fifty-four years later, the nation closes out Black History Month, a celebration that Moton — now a 73-year-old Hartford, Conn., retiree — would have found unimaginable decades ago in that lonely cell. How could his younger self have envisioned a month-long recognition of African American achievement at a time when people he saw working for the rights of “Negroes” being assaulted, hosed and even killed? Today, Moton doesn’t count himself among the heroes. “It’s good that we can look back … at people like Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Satchel Paige,” he says. “There’s so much that people don’t know about.”
Indeed. Few know about Moton’s contribution to black history, or about the ink-black night a month after his release when he raced through the Alabama countryside in work boots he wore during the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Dashing through muddy pastureland, Moton was fleeing the unseen gunman whose speeding car had pulled alongside the automobile he had been riding in. The man had fired into the front seat, killing the driver — protester Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five who became the only white woman killed in the civil rights movement. Whoever had murdered Liuzzo, Moton feared, was right behind him.
Running is a thing of the past for Moton, whose white Nikes step carefully behind the aluminum cane he uses to navigate his small apartment. In the five decades since he fled that imagined pursuer, he has traveled from Selma to Atlanta to Chicago and finally to Hartford, where he’s lived since 1969 in near obscurity since the April 25, 1965, attack that changed U.S. history. Liuzzo, 39, was a blond nursing student inspired by King’s call for Americans of faith to join nonviolent protesters in Selma after brutal Bloody Sunday attacks by police on peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Telling her uncomprehending husband that civil rights were “everyone’s fight,” Liuzzo drove alone in her baby blue Oldsmobile to join 25,000 others. A week later, she and Moton were returning to Montgomery after transporting a carload of weary marchers back to Selma when shots were fired from a speeding car holding four men — three Ku Klux Klansmen and an FBI informant known to have incited violence against blacks. Weeks later, the unprecedented slaying of a white female protester inspired Congress to pass the once-stalled Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, Moton sounds matter-of-fact as he describes acts of intense racist violence in the months preceding the bill’s passage: “They killed Jimmie Lee Jackson,” he begins. “Nothing happened. They killed [Boston pastor] James Reeb — a white man. Nothing happened.
“They killed Viola Liuzzo, a white woman,” he says. "[Congress] passed the Voting Rights Act."
There’s no bitterness in Moton’s voice that it took the shocking murder of a “nice white lady” from up North to spur reluctant legislators to act. Despite that night’s horror, he’s proud to have been part of “changing this world for the better,” he explains. “But Miss Liuzzo was the one who changed it.”
In at least one way, Moton isn’t unusual. Many of us can recall one day, one moment, that changed everything for us. But what if your life’s most unforgettable moment affected history — and you were still in high school when it happened? How would that indelible moment affect your next 50 years?
Certainly the nation has changed in once-inconceivable ways for anyone born under Jim Crow. Moton, the son of a cook at an Air Force base in Selma, was mesmerized by TV footage of civil rights protesters in Florida and Little Rock — activism he says he couldn’t imagine in his deeply racist hometown. “If someone had told me, ‘You’re going to be part of civil rights movement working for Martin Luther King,’ I wouldn’t have believed it."
He was a shy 10-year-old when the front page of the Negro weekly Pittsburgh Courier he sold for a dime featured the horrifically battered face of a slain Negro boy four years his senior — a child falsely accused of flirting with a 20-year-old white housewife. Two years later, Moton says, he thought of Emmett Till after three white men accosted him for daring to smile at amiable white girls whose lunch orders he took at the drive-in diner where he worked. The men stuffed Moton, who says he “always kept a smile on my face,” into a car trunk and drove him down a few dirt roads before returning him to the restaurant. Moton’s white boss told his abductors that his young employee was “just friendly” — and then fired him. At 15, Moton listened incredulously as the white owner of the supper club where he was a dishwasher pressed Moton to address his son — a teen barely Moton’s age — with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” Moton never did.
By the time Hosea Williams established a Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter in Selma in 1963, Moton was ripe for recruitment — despite his supper club boss threatening to “kick your ass til your nose bleeds,” if he caught him with activists. Within weeks, Moton was an SCLC volunteer. “When people told me what to do, I did the opposite,” he says. Besides, “I never thought anything was going to happen to me."
He’d been volunteering after school for nearly two years when he met Liuzzo. His assignment: parking the cars of demonstrators whose out-of-state license plates could potentially attract hostile locals’ ire. Moton was sitting on the steps of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, which served as a volunteer center, when the petite Detroiter asked him where to sign up. As Liuzzo handed Moton the Oldsmobile’s keys, he recalls, she said, “Please take care of my car.”
A week later, after the third Selma-to-Montgomery march, a worker alerted him that Liuzzo wanted to return to the Selma projects where she was bunking. Moton and four other marchers piled into Liuzzo's car as she took the wheel. Driving up two-lane Highway 80 to Selma, Moton says, Liuzzo mentioned returning to Detroit and her family the next day. He recalls she sang along when somebody in the group began warbling “We Shall Overcome.”
Dropping off the other volunteers, Liuzzo — whom Moton says he assumed would want to rest before her trip north — offered to drive him back to Montgomery to pick up another car, adding that she “wanted to get used to driving long distances again,” he recalls. They pulled into a B & P service station, where Liuzzo bought gas while Moton purchased two bottles of Coca-Cola. Pulling off, they stopped at a light. A red Ford hardtop pulled up next to them, driven by a 20-something white man whose arm was draped over a young woman’s shoulder. Noticing Liuzzo and Moton, the girl laughingly stuck out her tongue at the pair. As the girl’s companion drove his car into a restaurant parking lot, Liuzzo shook her head, Moton recalls, and said, “It’s a shame how some people act.”
What they noticed next was “the strangest thing,” Moton says now. All the lights along the highway that had been on when they’d driven into town were now out. “It was less than 20 minutes after we dropped off the other passengers,” he says. “Even the streetlights were off. . . . It was pitch black, even at places that stayed open till two in the morning.” Though the darkness seemed ominous, he recalls, the two resumed chatting as they drove. Moton noticed car lights some distance behind them, but assumed they belonged to another car carrying Montgomery-bound volunteers.
About 20 minutes later, Moton says, Liuzzo was singing a line from the Negro spiritual “Oh Freedom” — “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave” — when shots “came out of nowhere.” He had just leaned over to turn the Oldsmobile’s radio dial to a favorite 8 p.m. show — Randy’s Record Shop out of Nashville — when the driver-side window shattered, spraying glass into the car. The Olds swerved hard to the right, hurtling into a ditch near a rough-hewed fence. Moton felt his right shoulder and side of his head slam into the dashboard. He was knocked unconscious (he says long-accepted reports that he played dead are incorrect). Contrary to the dramatic, high-speed pursuit FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe later described, Moton says, “We never were chased.”
When Moton came to, Liuzzo was slumped beside him on the car’s bench seat, her foot still on the accelerator. Turning off the ignition, Moton says he shook Liuzzo’s arm, crying, “Miss! Miss!” in an attempt to wake her. “I kept shaking her, but she wasn’t moving,” he says. “I knew she was dead.” Moton fled into the darkness, away from the freeway, until a rustling sound from something in the brush sent him dashing back toward Highway 80 (he now believes it was cows). Terrified, he tore down the middle of the road toward Selma, where an oncoming sports car’s white male driver nearly ran him off the road. Returning to Liuzzo’s car, Moton recalls sliding back inside and once more shaking his inert companion, hoping he had been wrong. When Liuzzo didn’t move, he took off again, this time toward Montgomery.
Running on the highway’s centerline, he was stunned to hear singing. Its source: a large, open-bed truck filled with Selma-bound marchers. Hailing it down, the breathless youth told the Boston pastor at the wheel about the shooting. Telling Moton to join the dozen or so protesters on the truck bed, the pastor drove on, not even slowing down when they passed Liuzzo’s mangled car, Moton says, despite his yelling for him to stop. “’Everybody was scared.”
Dropped off at the church, Moton told a policeman parked across the street about the shooting. After reporting it on his car radio, the officer informed Moton he’d been told that police were already at the scene, apparently tipped off by informant Rowe. For the next year, Moton’s life felt surreal: The lie-drenched smear campaign J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI waged against Liuzzo’s character. His testifying at three trials of the accused Klansmen, one in which the Klan lawyer suggested Moton had shot Liuzzo to rob her, and a federal trial that resulted in 10-year prison sentences for two of the suspects. The entire episode, including the killing of the vivacious Detroit mother who had died beside him, faded surprisingly quickly from public memory.
The most lasting public evidence of that night’s tragic events was the landmark act outlawing racial discrimination in voting. It’s hardly surprising that a man who was nearly killed working for the Voting Rights Act’s implementation feels the legislation is underappreciated. Too many black people “have the right to vote and they ain’t using it,” Moton says. “They want to blame [other] people about what’s going on.” When he hears people complain about President Trump, Moton asks them, ‘Did you vote?’ ” When they tell him that voting is pointless because [politicians] just do what they want to do, Moton reminds them, “You can change things. People gave their lives so you can vote."
Periodically, journalists and curious citizens invite Moton to describe that tragic night. Anyone who has ever had their recollection of an event challenged by someone else’s different, yet equally certain, recollection knows how fluid and imprecise memory can be. It’s been 54 years — more than half a century — since Moton fled invisible attackers, years in which he briefly worked on voter registration in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Atlanta before moving to Hartford. Moton was married briefly, had a son, Leroy Jr., and worked for 22 years as a machinery company foreman before going on disability. He doesn’t seem bothered that some details of his recollections of that night don’t always align with others’ descriptions, or even with some of his own earlier statements. What never changes, he says, is the fear that still echoes today. Driving on dark, empty two-lane highways — like on nearby Connecticut Route 6 — still “feels scary,” he says. The night of Liuzzo’s slaying “never leaves me,” he says. “I think about it all the time. . . . I see her in the car. Time was, I wished it was me instead of her. She had five kids.”
Some questions, too, refuse to fade. “Did I cause [Liuzzo’s murder] by me riding with her?” he sometimes wonders. The question explains the stab of guilt he feels each time he sees the name of Liuzzo’s daughter Mary — in whose arms he cried when he met her in 2013 — pop up on his phone. Moton knew as well as anyone the Klan’s violent reaction to seeing white women with black men. Why, he’s asked himself, didn’t he sit in the Oldsmobile’s back seat that night as a precaution? Moton struggles to explain how heady life felt for black people after the SCLC’s arrival: the rush of finally seeing yourself as fully human, as freed from demeaning, racist rules. When thousands of good-hearted people — many of them white — flooded Selma to protest, suddenly, “we kids wasn’t afraid no more. We wasn’t afraid to say ‘No,’ and ‘Yes,’ instead of ‘No, sir,’ and ' Yes, sir.' We didn’t sit in the back seat anymore . . . or go to the back door. All that fear left.”
So what’s left now? Five decades of memories cherished and discarded have passed since his dark-night dash. One recent realization is that Liuzzo wasn’t the first white woman to influence him. He was 16, on a Greyhound bus home to Selma after spending the summer working with his brother in New York, when a sun-tanned young white woman in glasses slid into the seat beside him. Astonishingly, this 20-ish woman, “just started talking to me, asked where I was from,” Moton says. “When I said Selma, she said she was going to Atlanta to work for Dr. King. We talked all the way from New York to D.C.”
It was his first real conversation with a white girl — with any real, live, openhearted female whose paler skin didn’t require him to wait on her or to pretend not to see her. Before that moment, “the only time you were around white girls, you were cutting their grass or fixing their food.” The young woman’s interest in his life, in his plans for the future, felt expanding. Who doesn’t want to be seen as all that they are, beyond their skin color or station or possessions?
Perhaps that explains why he seems happy in Hartford, where he sleeps late most days after staying up into the wee hours watching TV and playing sports video games. Rising around 3 p.m., Moton takes an Uber to Starbucks to get his customary pastry. Three days a week, he visits his mom, Ella Mae, 91, in nearby West Hartford. Some days he makes fried chicken and yams for Leroy Jr., 30, a New York TV producer who visits often and whom Moton still calls “my baby.” He’s palpably grateful to have spent most of his life in a city so different from Selma, so unconnected to its memories.
Moton is thankful to the movement that “made me look at the world different,” he says. Without it, “I’d probably still be living [in Selma]. I’m 70-something years old. God must have kept me here for some reason.” He pauses, considers what that might be:
“To tell the story.”