It was her face that got me.
The woman who gazed from the photo in the Gary Post Tribune in April 1965 was blond and girlishly glamorous, wearing dark — I assumed red — lipstick. To my young eyes, nothing about her face belonged in an article about civil rights, or could be remotely connected to the movement-inspired mayhem my family often saw on the TV news.
The face belonged to Viola Liuzzo, 39, a wife and mother of five who’d left her family in Detroit to drive to Alabama to march with Martin Luther King Jr. And now she was dead, shot after ferrying protesters in her car with a “Negro man,” as African Americans were referred to then. I couldn’t make sense of it. Didn’t Liuzzo know about the water hoses and German shepherds being unleashed on people crazy enough to demand equal rights? Hadn’t she seen the snarling white faces on TV, so monstrously contorted with rage that even young black kids like me had to wonder, “Why do they hate me?” Liuzzo’s concern for Negroes meant her children were now motherless, a fact that had to be as unthinkable for them as it would have been for me. Would they hate me, too?
I thought of four other kids — girls barely older than me, blown up in a Birmingham church bombing two years earlier though they couldn’t possibly have hurt anybody. I remembered the three young civil rights workers — two white and one black — buried in a Mississippi dirt pile the previous year. But they were men — people I expected to take risks.
Viola Liuzzo was a woman — and white. She was cute. She was a mom. Suddenly I knew the monsters could kill anyone. More shockingly, Liuzzo had voluntarily put herself in a position where she could be attacked, even killed, for helping people who looked like my family and me — people she didn’t even know. Her enormous sacrifice suggested there were people in this country far better than the newscasts suggested. And if a white mom with everything to live for would risk death for me, maybe I mattered more than even I had dared to imagine.
Just last month, five decades after her death, Liuzzo — the only white woman killed in the Civil Rights movement — was awarded the Fred L. Shuttlesworth award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on its 25th anniversary. Singer/activist Harry Belafonte and Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington Jr., also were honored.
Few doubt that our nation has evolved in ways the child I once was couldn’t have dreamed. Yet I can’t help noticing how . . . small some Americans are becoming, or how divided some leaders are encouraging us to be. Where’s the Christian compassion so many of us subscribe to, that Viola so clearly possessed? Consider what confronts today’s children of color on the news: homegrown Nazis, a president calling athletes “sons of bitches” for protesting police having less regard for their families than they do for white ones, and the Border Patrol seeking to deport a 10-year-old Mexican girl with cerebral palsy — who’d lived in Texas since she was 3 months old — immediately after emergency surgery. Do these kids feel hated? Are they as astounded as I was that a white person — think Heather Heyer, mowed down in Charlottesville — could die for supporting them?
None of that explains Liuzzo’s face in that newspaper. Countless terrific parents heard King’s call for Americans to join demonstrators in Alabama after the violence on “Bloody Sunday.” Most stayed safely home. In the mid 1960s, it was all but unthinkable for a white mother to answer the call, but over the years, Liuzzo’s name and sacrifice faded from view. Yet the memory of the effect of her photo never left me. So I was thrilled last year to meet Mary Lilleboe, 69, one of Liuzzo’s three daughters, at the March on Washington Film Festival in the District. Haltingly admitting her mom is among my heroes, I asked a question that long haunted me:
“Who was she?”
Lilleboe’s answer: Everything you’d want a mom — and a hero — to be. She and her siblings were only too happy to discuss their mother with me recently, “not as a martyr,” as eldest daughter Penny put it, “but as this wonderful human being who loved every living creature.”
Lilleboe was a 10th-grader in 1965. Her book report on “To Kill A Mockingbird” was in the car in which her mom died. The intolerance for suffering that had led Liuzzo to enroll in nursing classes made her acutely aware of black Americans’ feelings of invisibility. During a visit to a department store’s elaborate Christmas display, she asked Lilleboe, then 13, how she’d feel if every Santa she saw was black instead of white. When Lilleboe was 16, Liuzzo asked her how she’d feel “if the magazines I loved never put pretty white girls on their covers.” The questions saddened Lilleboe, now 69, of Grants Pass, Ore., but offered “a glimpse into a world totally different than the one I was living in.”
By any measure, the life Liuzzo gave her children was an enviable one. The wife of a Teamsters business agent, she was the nature-loving mom, whose Tennessee roots inspired barefoot strolls and an insistence on exposing her kids to planetariums, rodeos, circuses and even watching their dog giving birth, so they’d appreciate the natural world. She was the caring mom who cured son Tony’s terror of the noisy trucks spraying pesticides on the neighborhood’s trees by visiting City Hall and arranging for him to ride in one. “I’m sitting on this big truck, helping [workers],” Tony, 62, of Milwaukee recalls. “I was never afraid after that.”
She was the fun mom, says Penny, 71, of Irwin, Tenn., describing the night she and a friend watching a scary movie were terrified when Viola — wailing ghoulishly in a fright wig, greenish makeup and Tony’s black altar-boy robes — materialized from around a dark corner.
What possessed Liuzzo to respond to her husband’s assertion that civil rights “isn’t your fight,” with, “It’s everybody’s fight,” and to join the hundreds flooding Alabama to protest?
She’d only been there a week when, after shuttling weary marchers from Montgomery to Selma in her 1963 Oldsmobile with volunteer Leroy Moton, 19, a car full of Klansmen spied Liuzzo and her black, male passenger. The men fired into the car, striking Liuzzo twice in the head. Covered in her blood, Moton played dead, later testifying against the killers, three of whom were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Liuzzo’s instantaneous response to King’s appeal didn’t shock Lilleboe. “If Mom saw a wrong . . . she took action,” she explains. When a neighbor’s house burned down one Christmas eve, her mother pounded on the door of a toy store owner’s home, insisting he open his shop so she could buy presents for the displaced family.
Her empathy was so reflexive, Lilleboe wonders, “Was Mom born with it?” As a child in Chattanooga, Liuzzo despised how cruelly she and her sister Rose Mary were treated as poor kids living in one-room shacks — yet she couldn’t help noticing black kids were treated even worse. Lilleboe never forgot her mom’s grief when the baby Liuzzo was carrying was stillborn — and her outrage when her Catholic church refused to bury her infant because it wasn’t baptized. If her love was too deep to discriminate against a baby, Liuzzo reasoned, God’s had to be immeasurably deeper, so she left Catholicism. Viola’s best friend in the world was Sara Evans, a black restaurant worker whom Liuzzo asked to care for her kids if anything befell her. After Liuzzo’s death, Evans became the brood’s second mother, especially when their dad — devastated by his beloved wife’s murder — drank too much or retreated.
Evans wasn’t the only reason Viola’s kids didn’t resent black people after her death. How could they, asks Tony, when the loathing heaped upon them seemed similar to the bigotry black people endured? “The only thing racists hated worse than blacks were the whites helping them,” Lilleboe explains. Liuzzo’s children’s agony over losing their mom was deepened by death threats, a cross burned on their lawn and shots fired into their home. Their father finally hired armed guards to protect them. A seventh-grade counselor smacked Tony upside the head for lagging behind in school, shouting, “Your mother’s been dead long enough!” Sally, 59, who also lives in Irwin, will never forget her first day back to first grade after Liuzzo’s death. She’d worn her favorite, just-polished white saddle shoes. It was pouring rain, so when 6-year-old Sally saw the street lined with adults throwing rocks and shouting “N-lover’s daughter!” she attributed their anger to “the white polish from my shoes bleeding onto the floor.” They couldn’t possibly be referring to the mommy she missed.
There’s more. Hours after Liuzzo’s slaying, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began a smear campaign against the victim to divert attention from an inconvenient fact: an FBI informant known to have participated in Klan violence had been in the killers’ car and may even have participated in the slaying. Viola’s family endured Hoover’s claiming that cuts on her arm from the car’s shattered window indicated “recent drug use” and that her proximity to Moton resembled “a necking party,” despite an autopsy revealing no traces of drugs in her system and indicating she hadn’t had sex recently before her death.
Yet there are many good memories. Though they never took him up on it, the Liuzzos were invited by King, and later his wife, Coretta, to spend Christmas with them for years after Viola’s passing. “He was so sweet,” Sally, 59, says of King, who before her mom’s funeral, told her, “One day you’ll understand your mom was a hero.”
Heroes, by their nature, are extraordinary. Yet Lilleboe sometimes wonders, “Why wasn’t everybody in Selma?” Like her siblings, she enjoys speaking to groups about Viola, always feeling wrapped in a blanket of love — especially from black Americans who still revere the martyr who was “a mother and a homemaker . . . instead of a leader, priest or organizer.” She particularly delights in visiting Alabama, despite her mother having been killed there. “Fifty-two years ago, the Klan thought they took my mother away,” she explains. “But she’s alive there, as are all the martyrs who fought that fight. I feel them on the streets they walked.”
Many historians ascribe the speed with which the Voting Rights Act passed on Aug. 6, 1965 — Sally’s seventh birthday — to national outrage over a white woman being slain rather than another dispensable Negro — like, say, Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Army veteran whose 1965 shooting during a demonstration incensed Liuzzo. My own esteem for Liuzzo’s sacrifice in no way compromised my awe for every black protester. Yet I can’t help marveling at people with no discernible dog in a fight who jump in with both feet. It’s too easy, shrugging, “Not my fight.”
Today, cynical politicians are capitalizing on our self-absorption. They know how … human it is to dismiss horrors that don’t touch us personally; to give more importance to our surface differences than to explore the deeper commonalities Liuzzo never forgot. Yet many aren’t buying it. Democratic victories attributed to unusually high voter turnout in Virginia’s recent election and this week in Alabama reminded Lilleboe of her mother. “It’s really all about the vote,” she says. “That’s what everybody who worked and suffered and died in the movement was working for — not just to secure the vote, but to realize its power when it’s exercised.”
Decades later, I still love the girlish photo of Liuzzo that captivated me. Yet as a grown-up, I’m equally moved by an image shot the day before she died. In it, Viola is trudging with other marchers, her face older, careworn. Clasping her shoes, she’s as barefoot as the Tennessee schoolgirl who first noticed Negroes were treated even worse than she was.
There’s nothing girlish about Liuzzo’s set face. Changing the world takes grit, grinding effort, unrelenting faith. In the journal the Liuzzos obtained from the FBI, my childhood hero wrote, “I can’t sit back and watch my people suffer,” about folks who looked nothing like her. Explains Lilleboe: “She actually believed it when Christ said that the suffering and needy are our people. Mom saw all other human beings as her people.”
For that, I’ll always be grateful.
Donna Britt is a former Washington Post columnist who lives in Silver Spring, Md.
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