Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo

Viola Fauver was born in Pennsylvania on 11th April, 1925. As a child, Viola lived in Tennessee and Georgia. After an unsuccessful marriage and the birth of two children, Viola married Anthony J. Liuzzo, a Teamster Union official from Detroit. Viola had three more children and at the age of 36 she resumed her education at Wayne State University. After graduating with top honors Viola became a medical lab technician.

A member of the NAACP, Viola decided to take part in the Selma to Montgomery march on 25th March, 1965, where Martin Luther King led 25,000 people to the Alabama State Capitol and handed a petition to Governor George Wallace, demanding voting rights for African Americans. After the demonstration had finished, Viola volunteered to help drive marchers back to Montgomery Airport. Leroy Moton, a young African American, offered to work as her co-driver.

On the way back from one of these trips to the airport, Viola and Leroy, were passed by a car carrying four members of the Ku Klux Klan from Birmingham. When they saw a white woman and black man in the car together, they immediately knew that they had both been taking part in the civil rights demonstration at Montgomery. The men decided to kill them and after driving alongside Viola's car, one of the men, Collie Wilkins, put his arm out of the window, and fired his gun. Viola Liuzzo was hit in the head twice and died instantly. Leroy was uninjured and was able to get the car under control before it crashed.

The four men in the car, Collie Wilkins (21), Gary Rowe (34), William Eaton (41) and Eugene Thomas (42) were quickly arrested. Rowe, an FBI undercover agent, testifed against the other three men. In an attempt to prejudice the case, rumours began to circulate that Viola was a member of the Communist Party and had abandoned her five children in order to have sexual relationships with African Americans involved in the civil rights movement. It was later discovered that these highly damaging stories that appeared in the press had come from the FBI.

Despite Rowe's testimony, the three members of the Ku Klux Klan were acquitted of murder by an Alabama jury. President Lyndon Johnson, instructed his officials to arrange for the men to be charged under an 1870 federal law of conspiring to deprive Viola Liuzzo of her civil rights. Wilkins, Eaton and Thomas were found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Collie Wilkins, Eugene Thomas andWilliam Eaton at their trial in Alabama.
Collie Wilkins, Eugene Thomas and William Eaton at their trial in Alabama.
Marie Foster, left, and Evelyn Lowery, right, place a wreath at the site where civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was killed by Ku Klux Klansmen
Marie Foster, left, and Evelyn Lowery, right, place a wreath at the site
where civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was killed by Ku Klux Klansmen

Primary Sources

(1) Stokely Carmichael, Black Power (1966)

In March, 1965, not one black person was even registered to vote; over the next twenty months, close to 3,900 black people had not only registered but also formed a political organization, held a nominating convention and slated seven of their members to run for county public office. If ever the political scientists wanted to study the phenomenon of political development or political modernization in this country, here was the place: in the heart of the "black belt," that range of Southern areas characterized by the predominance of black people and rich black soil.

Most local black people readily admit that the catalyst for change was the appearance in the county in March and April, 1965, of a handful of workers from SNCC. They had gone there almost immediately after the murder of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, on the final night of the Selma to Montgomery March. Mrs. Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, had been driving marchers home when she was shot down by Klansmen on that same Highway 80 in Lowndes County. For the black people of Lowndes, her murder came as no great surprise: Lowndes had one of the nation's worst records for individual and institutional racism, a reputation for brutality that made white as well as black Alabama shiver. In this county, eighty-one percent black, the whites had ruled the entire area and subjugated black people to that rule unmercifully. Lowndes was a prime area for SNCC to apply certain assumptions learned over the years of work in rural, backwoods counties of the South.