The Mother in Me    (Concept)

  • Years later it was proven that an FBI informant, Gary Rowe, was responsible for Viola’s death.

    While Liuzzo was being honored as a martyr, Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover was increasingly concerned about the embarrassing fact that Rowe had telephoned his FBI contact on March 25 and received permission to “work” during the march despite his history of violent behavior toward civil-rights activists. Rowe had participated in the beatings of Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961 and was suspected of involvement in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

    Hoover shifted the focus of the national news coverage from the FBI to Liuzzo’s motivation for joining the march. He consistently referred to her as an “outside agitator,” despite her southern upbringing, and at a private meeting with President Johnson reported that Liuzzo’s husband Jim was a Teamsters organizer with “a shady background.” Hoover also suggested that Liuzzo and Moton had stopped for a romantic interlude. When the president ignored his innuendos, Hoover instructed FBI staff to leak his speculations to the bureau’s Klan informants, who subsequently leaked them to the press. Liuzzo was widely portrayed in the media as an unstable woman who had abandoned her family to cause trouble in the South.

    The Teamsters paid to have Viola flown home from Alabama. The union also paid for a marker in Selma, near where she was killed.

  • Tony Bennett’s civil rights interests were influenced by Viola Liuzzo

    Just before the 24th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s April 4, 1968 murder, Tony Bennett appeared on the Arsenio Hall show to talk about the bloody 1965 Selma to Montgomery march he participated in at Harry Belafonte’s request. After the march, Bennett revealed, he was driven to the airport by Liuzzo. After leaving the airport, Liuzzo was shot and killed.

    Harry Belafonte called up Bennett and asked him to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Bennett accepted without hesitation. He flew to Alabama and linked arms with his allies in the fight for justice. Viola talked with Bennett while they linked arms.

  • There were four members of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) who were in the car and took part in the murder of Viola Liuzzo; those members were Collie Wilkins, FBI informant Gary Rowe, William Eaton, and Eugene Thomas. The four were quickly arrested and in no less than 24-hours later, President Lyndon B. Johnson, appeared on television to announce their arrest.

    Rowe had informed his FBI contact that the Klan members were planning to commit a violent crime in Montgomery, and after the news of the death of Viola Liuzzo the FBI came up with a cover up story immediately. Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas were charged and tried with the murder of Viola Liuzzo. Rowe was only on the case as a witness because the President and others wanted to avoid bad media coverage since Rowe was one of their FBI informants. Wilkins’ trial began May 3rd with an all white jury. The trial ended the following day as a mistrial (10-2 in favor of conviction). The trials defense attorney Matt Murphy died in a car accident before any other trials were held for the other two involved. Art Hanes took over as the defense attorney; Hanes was a segregationist and also had been Mayor during the 1963 time period in which the police commissioner used fire hoses on African American protesters.

    After much debate on December 3rd, the trio was found guilty by an all male white jury. The three were sentenced to 10 years in prison. When Wilkins and Thomas were out on an appeal they were charged and found guilty of firearm violations and sent back to jail.

    Due to the threats from the Klan members, Gary Rowe was put into the Witness Protection Program.

  • Devoted Mother

    Viola Liuzzo was born in 1925, to a mother who was a teacher, and a father who was a coal miner and a World War I veteran. During the Great Depression, her father’s hand was blown off in a mining accident, and Viola’s family became completely dependent on her mother’s meager teaching salary. Viola’s childhood was spent living in one-room shacks with no running water, moving from place to place throughout Georgia and Tennessee as her mother sought work.

    “Vi,” as she was affectionally called, left school at age 14. At age 18, she moved by herself to Detroit, where she worked as a cashier and a waitress. She married during her first year in Detroit, had two children, and divorced in 1949. She soon remarried, to a Teamsters union official, who she had another three children with. Vi’s children remember her as a woman who loved taking them on rock collecting expeditions, barefoot nature walks, and to planetariums, rodeos, and circuses. She was energetic and kind: Vi always gave money to the homeless, and drove her husband crazy taking in whatever stray animals she and the children encountered. Vi also read multiple books a week, stayed up late at night journaling, and read Plato and Thoreau to her five kids.

    In 1961, when her youngest child was three, Vi started attending night school to become a medical assistant. She graduated with top honors, but was infuriated by gender inequities in the workplace. Men were paid overtime, and women weren’t. When a secretary was laid off without severance pay, Vi turned her own check over to the secretary, and tried to organize other workers to chip in. Vi was fired after she drew public attention to these inequities. She rebelled against injustices in other institutions as well – she was even arrested for protesting the Detroit board of education. However, all of her early protests were solitary and lonely. Vi often felt like she was the only one who cared.

    In 1963, Vi began studying philosophy, sociology, and political science at Wayne State University. There, at age 38, she was surrounded by student debates about the civil rights movement. She was soon attending the weekly talks held by the school chaplain, a Christian existentialist named Rev. Malcolm Boyd. Malcolm had been a Freedom Rider who believed in an “ethics of action.” He was derided by conservatives as a “beatnik priest” who held “religious discussions in taverns.” Malcolm responded to such critics by saying that the church needed “to go out to the people, where they are, and learn to speak their language.”

    In 1964, Vi’s best friend – a Black woman named Sarah Evans – urged her to join the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. The two friends drove together to New York, to attend a civil rights seminar at the United Nations. The event was sponsored by the Detroit First Unitarian Universalist Church, and Vi began attending the church soon after. It was a hotbed of activism: many of the congregants had been Freedom Riders. Discussions around Selma began swirling on March 7th: Bloody Sunday, when marchers were attacked on Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then, on March 11th, the Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb was beaten to death in Selma. The church held an emotional memorial. By then, Vi felt that she needed to respond to the call to journey to Selma herself. Those feelings intensified as she participated in pro-Selma marches at the college, where she heard students who had been to Selma share their stories.