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Viola Liuzzo (1925-1965)

Why did the FBI smear this civil rights martyr?

On the 60th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Hank Kennedy tells the riveting story of a mostly unsung civil rights hero, Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered by the KKK in 1965 and then smeared by the FBI and police.

Of the people commemorated by the Civil Rights Memorial, only one is a white woman. Her name is Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife, part-time Wayne State University student, and member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Cass Avenue. In the years after her death, Viola Liuzzo has been the subject of statues and memorials in Alabama and Detroit. In 2015, her alma mater Wayne State University bestowed its first posthumous honorary doctorate upon her and created a nursing scholarship in her honor. Despite these honors, when I asked family and friends, most didn’t remember Liuzzo, even those who went to Wayne State. Part of this may be explained by the decade long attempt to tarnish her heroism.

Viola Liuzzo believed strongly in the civil rights movement and joined the NAACP in 1964. She saw the images of state troopers and police officers beating peaceful protesters in Selma on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965) and heard the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for people to come to Selma to help. Her husband Anthony, a Teamsters business agent, warned her of the danger, but she answered that call.

Viola Liuzzo drove down to Alabama in her 1963 Oldsmobile and participated in the march to Montgomery, the state’s capital, and volunteered at a first aid station. On March 25th, she and Leroy Motin, a 19-year-old Black man, were helping shuttle volunteers back to Selma from Montgomery in the Oldsmobile. One of the people she drove was the singer Tony Bennett. The trips were dangerous. At one point a car tried to force them off the road, and when getting gas, they were met by racist scorn and abuse. Then, when stopped at a red light, a car filled with four men pulled up alongside them. Their names were Collie Wilkins, Gary Rowe, William Eaton, and Eugene Thomas. They were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

When the Klansmen saw a white woman and a Black man in the car, they chased them down. The Klansmen fired their guns into the car, and Viola Liuzzo was killed. Leroy Martin, covered in blood, played dead when the KKK members inspected their gruesome handiwork. After he was sure they had left, he managed to flag down help from Reverend Leon Riley, who was likewise ferrying civil rights marchers back to Selma.

A collage of four black and white photos showing Alabama police attaching marchers from Selma to Montgomery, marchers carrying a banner reading "We March With Selma," and marchers during the event.
Images from the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965; photo credit: picryl.

Viola Liuzzo’s funeral was held in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Detroit on March 30th. In attendance were Dr. King, UAW President Walter Reuther, and Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, who allowed the use of the Teamsters’ private plane to transport the body back to Detroit. At the funeral, Hoffa presented Dr. King with a $25,000 check to Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council. The Teamsters additionally set up a fund to help in paying for the education of the five Liuzzo children.

Not everyone reacted to the murder with sadness. After Liuzzo’s funeral, four crosses were burned in Detroit. One was burned at the former headquarters of the Detroit NAACP, one at the City-County building, one at the home of Black resident Louis Washington, and one at the Liuzzo family home. Expecting violence after a group tried to break down the family’s door, shifts of Teamsters kept watch over the home. When 6-year-old Sally Liuzzo returned to school after her mother’s murder, adults lined the streets to throw rocks at her. Her father then had her transfer schools. Sally was later diagnosed with PTSD. In a truly ghoulish move, an advertiser in the Birmingham News offered to sell the car Liuzzo was murdered in for $3,500, calling the bullet-ridden car a “crowd pleaser.” Not even organized labor was entirely sympathetic. A Black autoworker claimed that “90-odd workers at the V-8 engine plant collected several hundred dollars to help finance the defense of the Ku Klux Klansmen accused of killing Mrs. Viola Liuzzo.” He called his union, UAW 659, a “Confederate local.”1

The city of Warren’s Police Commissioner Marvin G. Lane piled more dirt upon the family. Lane compiled an unflattering report using confidential Detroit Police files, detailing some of the family’s troubles and Viola Liuzzo’s struggles with mental health. Lane sent it along to Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark, who claimed he needed the report because he was threatened over the phone by a Teamster. Clark, a rabid segregationist, then likely passed it along to the KKK. The Klan used the information within the report to defend their accused members and darken the name of Viola Liuzzo.2

Along with Lane, the Federal Bureau of Investigation attempted to damage Liuzzo’s reputation after she was murdered. Despite the impression given by the film Mississippi Burning, the FBI generally played a less than heroic role in the struggle for Civil Rights. Aside from the Bureau’s well documented harassment of Martin Luther King, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover quashed an investigation into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four Black girls. In addition, Hoover prevented FBI agents from sharing information with other investigators or prosecutors on the case.

The FBI began a smear operation defaming Viola Liuzzo. Documents circulated to top FBI agents within a day of the shooting, claiming that “Mrs. Liuzzo had puncture marks in her arm indicating recent use of a hypodermic needle.” Even her grieving husband Anthony was not spared slander and innuendo. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover said that Anthony had poor character and advised President Johnson against meeting him “because he is a Teamster.” FBI agents were instructed to find out whether Anthony was a Communist. Hoover further claimed that Viola Liuzzo was in fact, cheating on her husband when she was killed because “she was sitting very close to that Negro when she was killed … it had the appearance of a necking party.” Hoover’s animosity towards the Liuzzos seemingly knew no bounds. When Anthony Liuzzo wrote asking for the return of his wife’s wedding ring and other personal effects, Hoover wrote “Liuzzo seems more interested in cash rather than in grief over his wife’s death.”3The ring was eventually returned in 1976.

The reason for this campaign of deceit was that the Bureau was under the sheets with the Klan. One of the Klansmen, Gary Rowe, was an FBI informant and the Bureau wanted to distract from the fact that one of their informants was an accessory to murder. During his career as an informant, Rowe participated in several acts of Klan violence. He helped organize a May 14, 1961 attack on Freedom Riders who were attempting to assert their rights to integrated interstate bus travel. Although Rowe let the FBI know about the planned attack and that local police were complicit in the plans, the Bureau did nothing to protect the Freedom Riders. Later, he claimed to have murdered a Black man while on the Bureau payroll and that his handler at the FBI told him to keep quiet about the incident. Rowe failed two polygraph tests when asked about his role in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which has fueled allegations that he was involved. Rowe said that he only pretended to fire his gun at Liuzzo. He then reported the shooting to his FBI handlers and was given immunity for his testimony against the others. In a remarkable slip up, the Bureau failed to dust any of the weapons for fingerprints.

Klansman Collie LeRoy Wilkins was tried in state court for the murder twice. At the first trial, his lawyer, KKK member Matt Murphy, spun a version of events in which Moton committed the murders under the influence of drugs.4The jury deadlocked. Ten were in favor of conviction for first degree manslaughter while two were against. Of the two voting for acquittal, one was a member of the white supremacist White Citizens Council, while the other was a former member. A mistrial was declared on May 7, 1965, and a second trial ordered. In between the two trials, Murphy died when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and crashed into a gasoline tanker truck. Anthony Liuzzo said of the death, “I don’t wish anybody dead, not even Matt Murphy, but I can’t help feeling there’s some kind of poetic justice here. I wonder if that truck driver was a Teamster.” 5

gravestone of Viola Liuzzo reading in memory of our sister who gave her life in the struggle for the right to vote.
Photo credit: Ron Cogswell via Flikr.

Wilkins’ second state trial was a complete travesty. The jury was entirely white. Six jurors said they believed in the superiority of the white race. Two were active members of the White Citizens Council, while four were former members. Four said they believed civil rights workers were inferior persons. The prosecutor requested that eleven of the jurors be disqualified due to prejudice against the victim, but a four-judge panel of the Alabama Supreme Court turned him down. Unsurprisingly, Wilkins was acquitted. On December 3, 1965 Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas were found guilty in federal court of conspiracy to intimidate African Americans by an all-white jury.6All three were sentenced to ten years in prison, although Eaton died of a heart attack before beginning his sentence and standing trial in state court for the murder. Thomas’ state trial too ended in a verdict of “not guilty.”7Wilkins and Thomas both served six years but were released early for good behavior.

In 1975, ex-FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe appeared before the U.S. Senate’s famous Church Committee, which investigated abuses by the IRS, CIA, NSA, and FBI. In his testimony, Rowe explained how he planned the 1961 Klan attack on the Freedom Riders with top Birmingham police officer “Bull” Connor. The Klan would be given a window to attack the freedom riders during which the police would not interfere. Rowe relayed the plans of the attack to the FBI, which did nothing to stop it. He then said, under oath, that he had warned the FBI of planned Klan violence on the night of the Liuzzo murder. Rowe also testified that he shot a Black man to death, but was told to not report it by his handler. After the Church Committee appearance, Rowe, Wilkins, and Thomas appeared on the ABC show 20/20. Here, Wilkins and Thomas told their version of the Liuzzo murder for the first time. They claimed that Rowe had actually fired the fatal shots. Rowe maintained that he had not. All three took polygraph tests relating to their version of events. Wilkins and Thomas passed. Rowe failed.

One of the viewers of the program was Anthony Liuzzo. Angered, he asked his sons, Tony and Tommy, to find out what the contents of his wife’s FBI files were. Tony and ACLU lawyer Dean Robb met with FBI director William Webster. Webster continued the fiction, begun by J. Edgar Hoover, that Viola Liuzzo was a drug addict and carried on a sexual relationship with Leroy Moton. He refused to discuss Gary Rowe’s role in the murder.8In 1977 the Liuzzo family filed a claim of negligence in the death of Viola Liuzzo against the FBI. The Bureau did not respond.

Frustrated, in 1979 the five Liuzzo children (Anthony passed away in 1978) filed a $2 million lawsuit against the FBI, charging that the Bureau was negligent in the murder of Viola Liuzzo. During the trial, the FBI admitted to having shredded 10,000 documents relating to the Liuzzo case.9Wilkins and Thomas testified that the Bureau’s informant, Rowe, was actually the killer, but this testimony was thrown out as “not credible”. Even if Wilkins and Thomas were lying, the fact remains that Rowe had alerted the Bureau to potential violence that they did nothing to prevent. He also sat by while Viola Liuzzo was murdered. Circuit Court Judge Charles W. Joiner, a white conservative appointed by Richard Nixon, ignored these arguments and ruled against the Liuzzo family. Incredibly, Joiner claimed that “it would have been a disservice to the mission of the FBI and the civil rights movement” if the Bureau prevented Rowe from participating in the killing. Tony Liuzzo called it “not just a defeat for our family, but a defeat for America.”

The murder of Viola Liuzzo and the aftermath had a destructive effect on the Liuzzo family. Not only did they have to deal with her death but with racist threats and harassment afterwards. The woman they lost was never valorized in film, like Gary Rowe was in Undercover With the KKK. It wasn’t until 2004 that the documentary Home of the Brave told Viola Liuzzo’s story. Anthony steadily slid into alcoholism and gambling addiction. When he died, he was on probation for participating in an insurance scam to solve his financial problems. Tony Liuzzo joined the Michigan Militia for a time. Mary Liuzzo experienced problems with drugs. Tommy Liuzzo suffered a nervous breakdown and disappeared from the public eye.

Viola Liuzzo deserves to be remembered as the hero she was, not the caricature created by Marvin Lane, the FBI, and the Klan. The FBI and Lane also deserve everlasting scorn for the historical role they played. In recent years, the Liuzzo family has called for FBI headquarters to drop J. Edgar Hoover’s name. I say it’s about time.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Hank Kennedy View All

Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.