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Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo
Born Viola Fauver Gregg
(1925-04-11)April 11, 1925
California, Washington County, Pennsylvania, United States
Died March 25, 1965(1965-03-25) (aged 39)
Selma, Alabama, United States
Cause of death Murder by KKK
Occupation 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 dead 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.[1][2] Rowe testified against the shooters and was moved and given an assumed name by the FBI.[3] The FBI later leaked what were purported to be salacious details about Liuzzo which were never proved or substantiated in any way.

In addition to other honors, Liuzzo's name is today inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama created by Maya Lin.


  • Early life 1
  • Michigan 2
  • Local activism 3
  • Selma 4
  • Death and funeral 5
  • Arrest and legal proceedings 6
    • Alabama mistrial and acquittal 6.1
    • Federal civil trial 6.2
  • FBI coverup and leaks 7
  • Aftermath 8
  • Legacy 9
  • See also 10
  • Notes 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Liuzzo was born Viola Fauver Gregg in 1925, in California, Pennsylvania, the elder daughter of Eva Wilson and Heber Gregg, a coal miner and World War I veteran. 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.[4] The family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee when Viola was six.

Having spent much of her childhood and adolescence poor 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.[5]


In 1941, the Gregg family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where her father sought a job assembling bombs at the Ford Motor Company. Viola’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, Michigan. 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 Viola’s future civil rights work.[6]

In 1943, she married George Argyris, a restaurant manager where she worked. They had two children, Penny and Evangeline Mary, and divorced in 1949.[7] She later married Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamsters union business agent.[7][8] They had three children: Tommy, Anthony, Jr., and Sally.[7] 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.[7]

In 1964, Liuzzo began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[7]

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 caretaker of Liuzzo’s five young children.[4]

Liuzzo so passionately believed in the fight for civil rights, that she helped organize Detroit protests, attended Civil Rights conferences, and worked with the NAACP. Liuzzo had a strong desire to make a difference on as large a scale as she could.[5]

Local activism

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 waver. She pled guilty in court and was placed on probation.[4]


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,[4] 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 Moton, 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 they were 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 Moton were returning to Selma on a back road, a car with four Klan members pursued them. Overtaking the Oldsmobile, three men shot directly at Liuzzo, hitting her twice in the head and killing her instantly. The car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence.[8] Although Moton 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, Moton began searching for help, and eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley. Rev Riley was, like Moton 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.

She is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.

Less than two weeks after her death, a charred cross was found in front of four Detroit homes, including the Liuzzo residence.[9]

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 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.[10]

Alabama mistrial and acquittal

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.[11]

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."[12]

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

  • Viola Liuzzo biography at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
  • Viola Liuzzo. Story of the civil rights activist assassinated by KKK in 1965
  • Viola Liuzzo article, Encyclopedia of Alabama
  • "The Detroit housewife who moved a nation toward racial justice" at the Wayback Machine (archived April 27, 1999) (from the Detroit News web site)
  • FBI file on Viola Liuzzo
  • Documentary film "Home of the Brave"
  • Activist website for Home of the Brave and Viola Liuzzo
  • "KKK Defeated By Viola Liuzzo & Civil Rights Martyrs" on YouTube Short video slideshow created by Viola Liuzzo's daughter
  • Historical Marker Database - Viola Liuzzo
  • Details of Rowe's prosecution
  • Killed For Taking Part In 'Everybody's Fight' from NPR's Codeswitch

External links

  • Hoods: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan by Robert P. Ingalls. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.
  • From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo by Mary Stanton. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8203-2045-5
  • Murder on the Highway: The Viola Liuzzo Story by Beatrice Siegel
  • The many deaths of Viola Liuzzo - 1965 murder of civil rights worker by Jared Taylor
  • Children of the Movement, by John Blake, Chicago Review Press, 2007, ISBN 9781569765944
  • Viola Liuzzo and the gendered politics of Martyrdom, by Jonathan L. Entin, Chicago Harvard Women's Law Journal, 2000, Volume 23, p. 249
  • Vindicating Viola Liuzzo: murdered by the Klan, demonized by the FBI, and disgraced by the press, Viola Liuzzo sacrificed life and legacy for civil rights by Mary Stanton. Alabama Heritage, 1998.
  • The Informant: The FBI, The Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo. by Gary May. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.


  1. ^ "Viola Liuzzo". Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  2. ^ "Government Evils Not To Be Forgotten". Retrieved 2014-12-13. 
  3. ^ a b "Gary T. Rowe Jr., 64, Who Informed on Klan In Civil Rights Killing, Is Dead".  
  4. ^ a b c d "Find @ UNC". 2000-04-01. Retrieved 2014-03-14. 
  5. ^ a b c "Find @ UNC". 2010-01-01. Retrieved 2014-03-14. 
  6. ^ Stanton, p. 26
  7. ^ a b c d e "Viola Liuzzo".  
  8. ^ a b "Civil Rights Martyr Viola Liuzzo".  
  9. ^ "Fourth Cross Is Burned On Detroit Lawn".  
  10. ^ Gary May (2005). "The Informant: The FBI, The Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo".  
  11. ^ Stanton, p 130
  12. ^ "Liuzzo protests car advertising". Baltimore Afro-American. 18 January 1966. Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  13. ^ a b Judge Peter Thorp Fay for the United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit (May 17, 1982). "676 F. 2d 524 - Rowe v. Griffin". United States Government Printing Office. Retrieved October 15, 2014.  cited at OpenJurist
  14. ^ a b Stanton, pp 52-55.
  15. ^ Stanton, pp 52-55, 189-192.
  16. ^ Blake, p 201. Quote from Penny on p. 201.
  17. ^ Ingalls, 1979.
  18. ^ Houston, Kay. "The Detroit Housewife Who Moved a Nation Toward Racial Justice". Detroit News. Archived from the original on 1999-04-27. 
  19. ^ "Week of events will honor Viola Liuzzo". 2015-04-07. Retrieved 2015-04-11. 
  20. ^ "Civil Rights Martyrs | Southern Poverty Law Center". Retrieved 2015-04-11. 
  21. ^ Horowitz, Hal (2008-06-24). "Treat Me Right - Robin Rogers : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  22. ^ "Contact Magazine Spring 2012 by Adrian College". ISSUU. Retrieved 2015-04-11. 
  23. ^ "Outside Agitators". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 16 October 2014. 
  24. ^ Spratling, Cassandra (1965-03-25). "Wayne State hails civil rights icon Viola Liuzzo as hero". Retrieved 2015-04-11. 


See also

In 2015, Wayne State University bestowed its first posthumous honorary doctorate degree on Liuzzo.[24]

Also in 2014, Liuzzo was played by Tara Ochs in the film Selma.

In 2014, the play Outside Agitators, written by 20% Theater's Artistic Associate, Laura Nessler, which is inspired by and based on Liuzzo's story, premiered. It premiered at the Prop Theater in Chicago, Illinois on September 20.[23]

In 2011, the Viola Liuzzo Ethics Scholarship was started at Adrian College.[22]

In 2008, Liuzzo's story was memorialized in a song, "Color Blind Angel" by the late blues singer Robin Rogers on her album, Treat Me Right.[21]

In 2004, Liuzzo was the subject of a documentary, Home of the Brave.

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.

Liuzzo has her name included as part of the Civil Rights Memorial, a monument in Montgomery, Alabama created by Maya Lin.[20]

Viola Liuzzo Park is located at Winthrop and Trojan in Detroit.[19]

An episode of the CBS TV series Cold Case, entitled "Wednesday's Women," was loosely based on her case.

Her murder was shown in Episode 2 of the King miniseries.

Liuzzo was featured in part 3 of a series of videos, "Free at Last: Civil Rights Heroes."


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.[18]

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).

Rowe was indicted in 1978 and tried for his involvement in the murder.[17] The first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second trial ended in his acquittal.[13]

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.

[5] It is surmised by many (civil rights activists, Liuzzo's children, etc.) that Liuzzo's death helped with the passing of the

Memorial to Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo in Lowndes County, Alabama


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.[15][16]

FBI director

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 acts of violence 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.[14] 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.[14]

FBI coverup and leaks


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