April 11, 1925|
California, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||March 25, 1965
Lowndes County, Alabama, United States
|Occupation||Housewife, civil rights activist|
Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965) was a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan. In March 1965 Liuzzo, then a housewife and mother of 5 with a history of local activism, heeded the call of Martin Luther King Jr and traveled from Detroit, Michigan to Selma, Alabama in the wake of the Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Liuzzo participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, she was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was 39 years old.
One of the four Klansmen in the car from which the shots were fired was Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant Gary Rowe. Rowe testified against the shooters and was moved and given an assumed name by the FBI. The FBI later leaked what were purported to be salacious details about Liuzzo which were never proved or substantiated in any way.
Viola Gregg was born in 1925 the oldest daughter of Eva Wilson and Heber Gregg, a coal miner and World War 1 veteran in California, Pennsylvania. The couple had one other daughter, Mary in 1930. While on the job, Viola’s father was injured, and, during the Great Depression, could not provide for his family as a coal miner: the Greggs became solely dependent on Eva’s income. Work was very hard to come by for Mrs. Gregg, as she could only pick up sporadic, short-term, teaching positions. The family descended further into poverty and decided to move in pursuit of better job opportunities. The family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee when Viola was six.
Having spent much of her childhood and adolescence poor and white in Tennessee, Viola experienced the segregated nature of the South firsthand. This would eventually have a powerful impact on Liuzzo’s activism. It was during her formative years Liuzzo realized the unjustness of segregation and racism, as she and her family, in similar conditions of great poverty, were still afforded social privilege and amenities denied to African Americans under the Jim Crow laws.
In 1941, the Gregg family moved to Ypsilanti Michigan, where her father sought a job assembling bombs at the Ford Motor Company. Liuzzo’s strong-willed nature led her to drop out of high school after one year, and elope at the age of 16. The marriage did not last and she returned to her family. Two years later the Gregg family moved to segregated Detroit. Tension between whites and blacks in Detroit were very high and the early 1940s saw violence and rioting. Witnessing these horrific ordeals was a major motivator that influenced Liuzzo’s future civil rights work.
In 1943, she married George Argyris. They had two children, Penny and Evangeline Mary, and divorced in 1949. She later married Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamsters union business agent. They had three children: Tommy, Anthony, Jr., and Sally. Liuzzo sought to return to school, and attended the Carnegie Institute in Detroit, Michigan. She then enrolled part-time at Wayne State University in 1962.
In 1964, Liuzzo began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, 4605 Cass Avenue, Detroit, Michigan, 48201-1256, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
A large part of Viola’s activism, particularly with the NAACP, was due to a close friendship with an African-American woman, Sarah Evans. After initially meeting in a grocery store where Liuzzo worked as a cashier, the two kept in touch. Evans eventually became the housekeeper of Liuzzo, while still maintaining a close, friendly relationship in which they both shared similar views and support for the civil rights movement. In the aftermath of Liuzzo’s death, Evans would go on to become the permanent caretakers of Liuzzo’s five young children.
Liuzzo so passionately believed in the fight for civil rights, that she helped organized Detroit protests, attended Civil Rights conferences, and worked with the NAACP. Liuzzo believed in her strong desire to make a difference on as big a scale she could.
In addition to actively supporting the civil rights movement, Liuzzo was also notable for her protest against Detroit laws that allowed for students to more easily drop out of school. Liuzzo's disagreement with this law, no doubt stemming from her first hand knowledge of the consequences of such a decision, led her to withdraw her children from school in protest. Because she deliberately homeschooled them for two months, Liuzzo was arrested, but did not waiver. She pled guilty in court and was placed on probation.
Liuzzo was horrified by the images of the aborted march on March 7, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge which became known as "Bloody Sunday." Nine days later, she took part in a protest at Wayne State. She then called her husband to tell him she would be traveling to Selma after hearing the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. call for people of all faiths to come and help, saying that the struggle "was everybody's fight." Leaving her children in the care of family and friends she contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who took her on and tasked her with delivering aid to various locations, welcoming and recruiting volunteers and transporting volunteers and marchers to and from airports, bus terminals and train stations, for which she volunteered the use of her car, a 1963 Oldsmobile. She participated in the later, successful and largely peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery between March 21 and March 25.
Death and funeral
After the third march concluded on March 25, Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Morton, a 19-year-old African American, continued shuttling marchers and volunteers to airports and bus stops and to African American colleges and to their homes in her car. As they were getting gas at a local filling station the diverse group was subject to abusive calls and racist scorn. As they were driving along Route 80, a car tried to force them off the road. Later, when Liuzzo and Morton were on a backroad, returning to Selma, a car with four Klan members pursued them. Overtaking the Oldsmobile three men shot directly at her, hitting her twice in the head, killing her instantly. Her car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence. Although Morton was covered with blood, the bullets had missed him. He lay motionless when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. After the Klansmen left, Morton began searching for help, and eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley. Rev Riley was, like Morton and Liuzzo, shuttling civil rights workers back to Selma.
Liuzzo's funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church on March 30 in Detroit, with many prominent members of both the civil rights movement and government there to pay their respects. Included in this group were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins; Congress on Racial Equality national leader James Farmer; Michigan lieutenant governor William G. Milliken; Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa; and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.
Arrest and legal proceedings
The four Klan members in the car, Collie Wilkins (21), FBI informant Gary Rowe (34), William Eaton (41) and Eugene Thomas (42) were quickly arrested: within 24 hours President Lyndon Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest. In order to avoid bad media press, President Johnson made sure to focus on the positive work of the FBI agents' solving of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, in an attempt to divert scrutiny away from the fact that one of their paid informants was found to be one of the accused Ku Klux Klan killers.
Alabama mistrial and acquittal
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (October 2014)|
Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas were indicted in the State of Alabama for Liuzzo's death on April 22. FBI informant Rowe was not indicted and served as a witness. Defense lawyer Matt Murphy quickly attempted to have the case dismissed on the grounds that President Johnson had violated the suspects' civil rights when he named them in his televised announcement. Murphy also indicated he would call Johnson as a witness during the upcoming trial.
On May 3 an all-white jury was selected for Wilkins' trial, with Rowe the key witness. Three days later, Murphy made blatantly racist comments during his final arguments, including calling Liuzzo a "white nigger," in order to sway the jury. The tactic was successful enough to result in a mistrial the following day (10-2 in favor of conviction), and on May 10, the three accused killers were part of a Klan parade which closed with a standing ovation for them.
Before the re-trial got under way, defense attorney Murphy fell asleep while driving an automobile and was killed when his car hit a gasoline truck. It was August 20. The former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, Art Hanes, agreed to take over representation for all three defendants one week later. Hanes was a staunch segregationist who served as mayor during the tumultuous 1963 period in which police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor used fire hoses on African American protesters.
After another all-white jury was selected on October 20, the two day trial ended when the empanelled jurors took less than two hours to acquit Wilkins.
Federal civil trial
The next phase of the lengthy process began when a federal trial charged the defendants with conspiracy to intimidate African-Americans under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction civil rights statute. The charges did not specifically refer to Liuzzo's murder. On December 3, the trio were found guilty by an all-white, all-male jury, and were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
While out on appeal, Wilkins and Thomas were each found guilty of firearms violations and sent to jail for those crimes. During this period, the January 15, 1966, edition of the Birmingham News published an ad offering Liuzzo's bullet-ridden car for sale. Asking $3,500, the ad read, "Do you need a crowd-getter? I have a 1963 Oldsmobile two-door in which Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was killed. Bullet holes and everything intact. Ideal to bring in crowds."
After all three defendants were convicted of the federal charges, state murder cases proceeded against Eaton and Thomas. Eaton, the only defendant who remained out of jail, died of a heart attack on March 9. Thomas's state murder trial - the final trial - got under way on September 26, 1966. The prosecution built a strong circumstantial case in the trial that included an FBI ballistics expert testifying that the bullet removed from the woman's brain was fired from a revolver owned by Thomas. Two witnesses testified they had seen Wilkins drinking beer at a VFW Hall near Birmingham, 125 miles from the murder scene, an hour or less after Liuzzo was shot. Despite the presence of eight African Americans on the jury, Thomas was acquitted of the state murder charge the following day after just 90 minutes of deliberations. State attorney general Richmond Flowers, Sr. criticized the verdict, deriding the black members of the panel, who had been carefully screened, as "Uncle Toms."
On April 27, 1967, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the federal convictions of the surviving defendants. Thomas served six years in prison for the crime.Due to threats from the Klan, both before and after his testimony, Gary Thomas Rowe went into the federal witness protection program. Rowe died in 1998 in Savannah Georgia after having lived several decades under several assumed identities 
FBI coverup and leaks
After Liuzzo's death, the FBI was concerned that they might be held accountable for their informant's (Rowe) role in the death. Rowe had been an informant for the FBI since 1960. The FBI was aware that Rowe had participated in violent activities during Ku Klux Klan activities. On the day of Liuzzo's death, prior to the shooting Rowe called his FBI contact and notified him that Rowe and other Klansman were travelling to Montgomery, and that violence was planned. After Liuzzo's death, the FBI initiated a cover-up campaign, to obscure the fact that an FBI informant was in the car, and to ensure that the FBI was not held responsible for permitting their informant to participate in violent acts, without FBI surveillance or backup.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initiated a campaign to discredit Liuzzo in the eyes of the public. Hoover insinuated to President Johnson that Liuzzo was a drug addict, that she had sex with Morton, and that her husband was involved with organized crime. The FBI leaked the allegations to the media, and several newspapers repeated the claims. Liuzzo's husband attempted to defend his wife's reputation; his daughter Penny states that the disinformation campaign "took the life right out of him .. he started drinking a lot." Autopsy testing in 1965 showed no traces of drugs in Liuzzo's system, and that she had not had sex recently at the time of death. The FBI's role in the smear campaign was uncovered in 1978 when Liuzzo's children obtained case documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act.
It is surmised by many (civil rights activists, Liuzzo's children, etc.) that Liuzzo's death helped with the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed barriers to voting such as literacy tests and poll taxes. President Lyndon B. Johnson also ordered investigation immediately after the death. Liuzzo was criticized by different racist organizations for having brought her death upon herself. At that time, Liuzzo’s choice to immerse herself in such a dangerous undertaking was seen as extremely radical and controversial. However, of all the deaths to occur during the campaign, Liuzzo's was the only one scrutinized in such a way, where other male activists who were killed were recognized as heroes.
On December 28, 1977, the Liuzzo family filed a lawsuit against the FBI, charging that Rowe, as an employee of the FBI, had failed to prevent Liuzzo's death and had in effect conspired in the murder. Then, on July 5, 1979, the American Civil Liberties Union filed another lawsuit on behalf of the family.
On May 27, 1983, a judge rejected the claims in the Liuzzo family lawsuit, saying there was "no evidence the FBI was in any type of joint venture with Rowe or conspiracy against Mrs. Liuzzo. Rowe's presence in the car was the principal reason why the crime was solved so quickly." In August 1983, the FBI was awarded $79,873 in court costs, but costs were later reduced to $3,645 after the ACLU appealed on behalf of the family. See Liuzzo v. US, 565 F. Supp. 640 (1983).
The family's oldest son, Thomas, moved to Alabama in 1978 and legally changed his last name to Lee in 1982 after constant questions about whether he was related to the civil rights martyr.
Liuzzo was the subject of a 2004 documentary, Home of the Brave. She was featured in a part 3 of a series of videos, "Free at Last: Civil Rights Heroes." Her murder was shown in Episode 2 of the King miniseries.
In 1991, Liuzzo was honored by the Women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with a marker on the highway (Highway 80) where she was murdered in the Ku Klux Klan attack in 1965.
An episode of the CBS TV series Cold Case, entitled "Wednesday's Women," was loosely based on her case.
The play, Outside Agitators, written by 20% Theater's Artistic Associate, Laura Nessler, is also inspired by and based on her story. The play first premiered at the Prop Thtr in Chicago, Illinois on September 20, 2014. 
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