Viola Liuzzo’s legacy will live on, according to her daughter, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe. The late civil rights activist sacrificed her life helping African Americans register to vote in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. Her assassination by members of the KKK inadvertently spurred on the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This landmark piece of federal legislation helped lessen the barriers for black people in America to vote. In remembrance of mothers in May who made a difference through every day sacrifices and the ultimate sacrifice, this is the story of Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Willie Lee Jackson.
Liuzzo was the first white female killed during the Civil Rights Movement while supporting efforts to register African American voters in Alabama as she transported a black teenage male from Montgomery back to Selma. Many people around the nation were outraged by this senseless act of violence. Others condemned Liuzzo and her family for trying to help register blacks to vote in the first place. But her slaying drew even more attention to the issue of racism and the discriminatory practices with the voting process.
Lilleboe said her mother’s legacy will live on through the thousands of people who were touched by her mother’s kindness and those who have embraced her memory.
Liuzzo traveled to Alabama in March of 1965 to help the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with its efforts to register African American voters in Selma. People came from across the nation to join in with the marches and protests in solidarity even though there was imminent danger involved.
The civil unrest that was depicted on the news in the 1960s concerning race relations in the country, especially in the South, drew thousands.
Racial tensions continue today with protests around the nation over reports of police brutality and the killings of black men at the hands of white police officers. The fight for equal justice for all seems to be an ongoing battle. However many men and women of all cultural backgrounds still believe their voices will make a difference and they too are willing to risk being harmed or arrested or even death to let their voices be heard through protests and marches as well.
Although Liuzzo was only in Selma for a few days before she was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, she touched the lives of many and carved a place in history as someone who sacrificed her life because she valued the lives and the civil rights of all human beings.
During the Civil Rights Movement, the televised depiction of people being brutally beaten on “Bloody Sunday” drew thousands to Alabama to protest the treatment of blacks in the South. They knew it was dangerous, but they came anyway. The volunteers and demonstrators wanted to help. They wanted to effect change.
Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five from Michigan, also heeded the call after seeing the violent images of law enforcement officers brutally beating non-violent protesters on television. She wanted to aid in the cause of getting African Americans registered to vote. And against her husband’s wishes, Liuzzo headed to Alabama.
Lilleboe said that she was only 17 years old when her mother left for Selma without telling her father, the late Anthony Liuzzo, Sr., until she was on the road. “We knew if she saw something wrong, she didn’t have to think about it. She just took action,” she said.
Lilleboe said that Liuzzo’s activism was just the way she lived her life. “It was always about the “underdog” for my mother, coming to the aid of someone in need,” she said. “If people were in trouble or being treated badly, or even if it was a stray animal, it was in our house. So it was just a way of life for us.”
Liuzzo made it safely to Selma and ended up at the front door of a African American mother who was estranged from her husband and raising her children alone. Willie Lee Jackson, who is now 88-years-old and lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, said that Liuzzo told her that she was tired and wanted a place to rest. “She told me that her name was Viola Liuzzo and I told her my name and we chatted for a little while,” she said.
Willie Lee Jackson said that during that time, it wasn’t unusual for people to just show up at your front door to ask for a place to rest or somewhere to spend the night because there were so many people coming to the area to join in with the protests or the marches. Willie Lee Jackson said that she had five young children at the time and soon discovered that Liuzzo was also the mother of five young children.
Willie Lee’s son, Maurice Jackson, was only 12-years-old when he met Liuzzo, who left a favorable impression on him. “The most obvious thing I remember about her is that she was a white lady,” he said. Maurice Jackson said that even though Liuzzo stayed with them for only a short time, she became like a part of the family. “She helped with the children (in the house),” he said. “She was such a nice lady and we didn’t feel like we had a stranger in our midst.”
Willie Lee and Viola became fast friends. Liuzzo helped Willie Lee Jackson with her teenage daughter who had recently given birth.
Years later, Lilleboe got a call from Willie Lee Jackson’s daughter, Frances (Smith), and she told her that she remembered when her baby wouldn’t stop crying and Viola said, “Honey, your baby’s hungry.”
Lilleboe said that Frances told her, “You know, I was 17-years-old and your mother fed my baby his first bite of solid food.” Frances also told Lilleboe that her mom was going to bring her back home to Michigan with her so that her baby could have a better life. “My mom was always taking in people who needed help and there were always different people staying in our home,” she said. “So when Frances told me that story, it was very (meaningful),” Lilleboe said.
Maurice Jackson, 63, who currently resides in Tampa, Florida, said that Liuzzo stayed with his family for the entire duration of her visit to Selma before she was killed, which was only a few days but she made a big impact anyway. “She would go over to Brown Chapel AME Church and give rides to people to the bus station and to the airport for the short duration that she was there,” he said. “She came to help. She didn’t just come to be a spectator.”
Maurice Jackson also said that since his mother, Willie Lee, didn’t drive, Liuzzo would take her to run errands as well. But there was a larger purpose for her being in Selma. Liuzzo thought African Americans like anybody else had the right to vote and no obstacles should have prevented that from happening.
“(Viola) said that she thinks that everybody, no matter what your color, should be able to register to vote,” Willie Lee Jackson said. “She said that I don’t know why they think it’s so terrible to let you all vote.”
On March 25, 1965, Liuzzo was shot to death by members of the KKK while driving voting rights activist 19-year-old Leroy Moton, a black man, back to Montgomery from Selma. This is what her husband had feared could happen.
Lilleboe, 68, who now lives in Oregon, said that she, however, didn’t know what a big sacrifice her mother’s trip to Selma was at that time. “We knew about Emmett Till (a murdered black teen). We knew about Jimmie Lee Jackson (a slain black civil rights activist),” she said. “Even though I knew all that, I had no idea how different the world for African Americans, black people, (how they) lived in such a different world than I did.”
She said that her mother called the night she was killed to check in and she and her siblings thought everything was just fine. Liuzzo had called every evening around dinnertime to let them know how things were going and was very excited that the march had gone well. “My two brothers picked up a sign and said, ‘We shall overcome,’” Lilleboe recalled. “My dad just told them not to joke around and she wasn’t home yet. And it was that night that we got a phone call and they asked my dad if his wife was ‘Viola Liuzzo.’”
She said that it was only because she was forced to see the disparities of black lives in America versus white lives after her mother’s death that she began to understand what she believes her mother understood all along about race relations and the inequalities that existed.
When Lilleboe saw what was happening on television, like her mother, she said she couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t go there and try to stop it or say, “This is wrong.”
Lilleboe said when she visited Selma many years later, the warm reception she received from the people there let her know how much of a difference her mother had made.”When I saw how much the people (of Selma) loved my mom, I realized the significance of what she did for thousands and thousands of people,” she said. “I felt loved and nurtured and embraced for the simple fact that I was my mother’s daughter.”
Lilleboe and her four siblings Sally Liuzzo Prado, Penny Herrington, Tom Liuzzo and Anthony Liuzzo, Jr. are a continuing and vital part of Viola Liuzzo’s legacy. Lilleboe said that she thinks her mother’s legacy is also the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had. “Dr. King’s dream, his big dream, was that we would have a community where justice and equality prevails,” she said. “And every man and woman or child had the opportunity to reach their highest potential. And that was always her dream.”