Viola Liuzzo

(1925 – 1965)

  • Position:
    Legacy Leaders

Viola Gregg Liuzzo was born on April 11, 1925 in the small town of California, Pennsylvania. Her father, Heber Ernest Gregg, worked in a coal mine until his right hand was blown off in a mining explosion. He left school in the eighth grade, but taught himself to read. Her mother, Eva Wilson Gregg, had a teaching certificate from the University of Pittsburgh, but finding work was not always easy for her. Viola was the couple’s first child. Her sister, Rose Mary, was born eleven years later. During the Great Depression, the family moved from Georgia to Tennessee, where Eva Gregg found a teaching position. The family was very poor and lived in one-room shacks with no running water. The schools Liuzzo attended did not have adequate supplies and the teachers were too busy to give extra attention to children in need. Because the family moved so often, Liuzzo never began and ended the school year in the same place. Although her parents argued against it, Liuzzo dropped out of school in the tenth grade. She and her father often argued about her social activities and, at the age of 16, Liuzzo ran away and married a much older man. The marriage lasted only one day.

In February 1965, a night demonstration for voting rights at the Marion, Alabama courthouse turned violent. State troopers clubbed marchers and beat and shot a 26-year-old African American named Jimmie Lee Jackson, who later died. His death spurred on the fight for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) scheduled a protest march for Sunday, March 7, 1965. Governor George Wallace banned the march, but the ban was ignored. Six hundred marchers headed for the arched Edmund Pettus Bridge that crossed the Alabama River. As the protesters reached the crest of the bridge, they saw a terrifying sight on the other side: state troopers armed with clubs, whips, and tear gas, and a sheriff’s posse on horseback. When told to stop and disperse the marchers refused. The troopers advanced on the marchers, clubbing and whipping them, fracturing bones and gashing heads. Seventeen people were hospitalized on the day later called “Bloody Sunday.”

On Sunday, March 21,1965 more than 3,000 people began the second march, including blacks, whites, doctors, nurses, working class people, priests, nuns, rabbis, homemakers, students, actors, and farmers. Many famous people participated including Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young. It took five days for the protesters to reach their goal. Liuzzo marched the first full day and returned to Selma for the night. On Wednesday, March 24, she rejoined the march four miles from the end, where a “Night of the Stars” celebration was held the City of St. Jude with performances by many popular entertainers of the day, including Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Baez, and Dick Gregory. Liuzzo helped at the first aid station. On Thursday, Liuzzo and other marchers reached the state capitol building, with a Confederate flag flying above it. Martin Luther King addressed the crowd of 25,000, calling the march, a “shining moment in American history.”

After the march, Liuzzo insisted on helping shuttle people from Montgomery back to Selma. After dropping passengers in Selma, she and 19 years old Leroy Moton headed back to Montgomery. Liuzzo stopped at a red light, and a car with four white men pulled up alongside her. They saw a white woman and a black man in a car together. Because of segregation blacks and whites in the South did not share public facilities and race mixing often led to violence. These men belonged to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a group that supported the continuation of segregation. They followed Liuzzo, who tried to outrun them. They caught up with her car and opened fire. She was shot in the head and died in Lowndesboro, Alabama on March 25, 1965.

On May 3, 1965, the trial of Liuzzo’s killers began. One of the men in the car, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., was an FBI informant and thus was protected by the FBI. The three others were indicted on a state charge of murder and a federal charge of civil rights violation. The all-white jury could not come to a decision and a mistrial was declared. The second trial began in October. The defense attorney attacked the credibility of the informant, Rowe, stating that he fabricated information. The men were found not guilty of murder. In the federal trial the defendants were found guilty of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of Liuzzo and were sentenced to ten years in prison, a landmark in southern legal history.

In 1978, investigations revealed that Rowe, the FBI informant, may have been involved in the bombing of a church in 1963 where four black girls were killed. In November of 1978, a grand jury indicted Rowe for the murder of Liuzzo, but he fought the extradition proceedings against him. In 1980, an FBI file revealed that Rowe had clubbed Freedom Riders and that the FBI had paid his medical bills and given him a $125 bonus. The Liuzzo children sued the FBI for $2 million, blaming Rowe and the FBI for the murder. A federal judge blocked Rowe’s extradition to Alabama. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Liuzzos got Rowe into court, but the judge threw out the case and ordered the family to pay back the government $80,000 in court costs. The family appealed and the fine was voided.