Concerto for Viola

Viola Liuzzo was murdered on March 25, 1965 between Selma, Alabama and Montgomery, but it was the why of her death that led to her sainthood.

I was a junior at Alton High School, rehearsing for the musical Wonderful Town, in love with Carla Price, hanging out at Dairy Queen (Elaine Bunse from my Sunday School class—her dad owned the Dairy Queen) and full of myself.

Did Ms. Liuzzo get mentioned in our history class? I don’t remember. How did I hear the news, or how was I even aware of events transpiring in Alabama? I don’t remember. I do remember that I was slowly evolving into an activist but I had to keep it to myself. My old man, on the verge of leaving my multiple sclerosis-cursed mother and my sister and me, would have whipped any overt activism out of me.

Viola Liuzzo was a Unitarian Universalist activist and Detroit housewife, white, obsessively watching on television the newscasts covering Bloody Sunday, the March 7 protest in Selma, watching march leaders James Bevel and Amelia Boynton and others being beaten bloody under orders from Alabama governor George Wallace. Boynton was beaten unconscious in full view of news cameras. Liuzzo left her home and drove for Selma.

The second march took place on March 9. Among the marchers was James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, compelled to drive all night and join the second march. Obeying a court injunction, Martin Luther King led the marchers off the Edmund Pettis Bridge. James Reeb was pulled by white supremacists from the marchers and beaten to death.

The third march, starting on March 21, took place along the fifty-four mile stretch of Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery, known by the locals as the Jefferson Davis Highway. President Johnson ordered 1,900 National Guard troops to line the highway and protect the marchers. The caravan arrived in Montgomery on March 25.

Viola Liuzzo volunteered to shuttle marchers to airports and back to Selma. That night, as Martin Luther King stood at his portable pulpit at the foot of the steps of the Montgomery statehouse and delivered his “How Long” speech, as thousands of marchers stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of writer James Baldwin and singer Harry Belafonte and now-congressman John Lewis and Joan Baez, Viola Liuzzo drove some protesters back to Selma.

On the return trip to pick up more folks from Montgomery, Liuzzo and passenger and nineteen-year-old black man Leroy Moton were spotted by white supremacists, one of whom was FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. The white men, no doubt enraged by the sight of a white woman and a black man in the same car, jumped in a car and gave chase, opening fire and killing Viola Liuzzo. Moton was wounded, but he survived the attack by pretending to be dead.

J. Edgar Hoover characterized Mrs. Liuzzo as a crazy person come to Alabama for drugs and illegal sex with blacks. An all-white jury acquitted the shooters but they were later arrested on federal civil rights violations.

Wonderful Town was a smash hit at Alton High School. I knew I was headed for a singing career and salvation, through the healing power of art. Meanwhile, the Reeb and Liuzzo families, whose loved ones paid the ultimate price for justice, buried their dead.

The full weight of human activity is such that most of us go about our business. We may wince at the occasional horror, such as the deaths of Reeb and Liuzzo, but we rehearse and perform and go to work and make love and chase Carla Price and watch sunsets and smoke behind the barn and tickle our grandkids and go to the big game…and heroism shall not touch us or wound us or change us. Shall not.

And now we are perfectly complacent to the point of not voting. And now comes, the scene is set for Fascism.

On March 10, 1995, George Wallace (“I’ll never be out-niggered again,” “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”), wheelchair bound from being shot by a would-be assassin, showed up at St. Jude’s Church in Montgomery. The occasion was the thirtieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. “Much has transpired since those days,” Wallace told the crowd. “A great deal has been lost and a great deal gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, welcome to Montgomery. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten.”

An historic marker at the side of the Jefferson Davis Highway reads: In Memory of Our Sister Viola Liuzzo Who Gave Her Life in the Struggle for the Right to Vote…. March 25, 1975.

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