Murder on Rt 80: The Long Road from Selma

1 Mar

First of all, put on some Jimi Hendrix. Ok, now you may continue.


Proud sidenote: Viola was a longtime Unitarian… Go Unitarian Unversalists! (I was born ‘n’ raised, y’all!)

In an instant, teenage Penny Liuzzo was overcome with a sense of dread. While watching television in 1965, she doubled over in a fit of nausea. She knew exactly why. “Oh my God, my mother is dead.” Her mother, Viola Liuzzo, had driven to Selma, Alabama to join the civil rights protests after the Bloody Sunday march to Montgomery. After a premonition, she begged her mother not to go. But Viola, fiercely independent and determined to make a difference, carried on.

Hours later, Penny lied awake in bed, unable to sleep. Her father called. Her intuition was correct. Her mother was dead. ‘Then something happened that Penny still cannot explain 40 years later. Her 6-year-old sister, Sally, walked into the bedroom and said, “No, Mama’s not dead. I just saw her walking in the hall.”‘


Liuzzo’s mother was brutally murdered by the KKK for being a voice in the civil rights movement. Now, the murder that divided a generation is again in the headlines, as it symbolizes a story with a revolving narrative in our society. From FBI conspiracies to the galvanizing of a social movement, to the tragedy of a family forever traumatized by being publicly scapegoated for their tragedy, to the reaching of the point of no return in a nation divided by the murder of a white woman in the deep south of Selma, Alabama.

This story starts out with shock and continues to build upwards past outrageous, finally culminating as an unforgettable injustice made worse by public backlash and government lies. The life and death of one of America’s greatest unsung (s)heroes of the civil rights movement comes to a head as the US Supreme Court heard arguments challenging the 1965 Voting Right’s Act.

During the time of the “Second Civil War,” America was a hotbed of lighting-rod issues. Right after the women’s movement exploded post-WWII baby boom, consumerist-driven ignorant bliss with the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” the tectonic plates of American society began to chafe, as racism and sexism were put in the spotlight.

Let’s be clear here: it got ugly. And the non-oral records (i.e. media stories) only captured a snapshot of what daily life was like for those in the movement. To be sure, Viola Liuzzo was a perfect example of the targeting of protestors by racist hate groups, or law enforcement (not often mutually exclusive agencies at the time). Think: police spraying children with fire hoses, the sexual harassment and assault of African American women, the sexual shaming of white women who chose to participate, and the violent emasculation of Black men. At the time, violence was widespread and did not infrequently end in murder or even lynchings.

I am reminded of a moment during the Bloody Sunday march in Selma in 1965, when a phalanx of cops stampeded a group of black protestors. Stepping on their arms, legs, faces, beating them with their batons as they stomped on them, they appeared as a locomotive of hate.

It was after this very protest that Viola Liuzzo was murdered. After viewing this very footage on television, she was moved to act. A Unitarian Universalist (like your proud La Capitana here), she took the Golden Rule very seriously, as well as social justice. It is the main tenet of UU ministry. She wasn’t just a powerhouse of a woman, Jill-of-All-Trades who could literally put her mind to anything and achieve it; she was the kindest person anybody knew. Always reaching deep into her pockets to help those around her, she once wrote a whole paycheck to a woman co-worker who was laid off. Both an act of compassion and political statement of solidarity, she thought it would elicit an emotional response of her employer. Wrong. They both got fired.

Never daunted, she told her family she just had to do something, and responded to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for protestors to join peacefully in response to the violence. She drove down to Selma and began volunteering as a driver to transport protestors, joining the thousands of others marching to Montgomery.

At the time, the controversy of a white woman independently acting and driving around African Americans, especially men, could not have been overstated. Surely, she was aware of the danger of allowing herself to be noticed by the sneering white men and white male “journalists” that descended upon Selma during the protests.

People at the time were especially critical of white women who got involved. In a cruel intersection of complimentary bigotry, white men and the media lashed out at her and others, calling them “white whores” (notice the qualifier there…), and warning the country that these white women protestors were going to come home bearing black men’s children. Labelled as promiscuous by the racist majority at the time, the white women involved experienced a specifically hateful backlash. Oh, the layers and layers of patriarchy and post-colonialism…

Sure enough, people noticed. It didn’t take long. Some white journalists went out looking for controversy to stir up, some “proof” of the lasciviousness they perceived in this integrative movement. The idea behind this mindset is to scare white men into thinking that their women are going to be stolen by black males, simultaneously subjugating both groups to white male authority… And white boys say they don’t got no privilege, b*tch!

Turns out there was an FBI informant with a group of KKK members, who failed to respond in time. They drove up to Liuzzo’s car and shot her in the head. She died instantly, forever martyred for the movement. But her journey as a martyr had only just begun, because her death became a lightning rod of American backlash against both the womens’ and anti-racism movements (under the broader umbrella of civil rights in general).

The FBI stirred up a public backlash against Liuzzo in order to cover for their failure to protect her. Hate mail was sent to her family from the public, including images of her dead body in the car in which she was shot

The FBI stirred up a public backlash against Liuzzo in order to cover for their failure to protect her. Hate mail was sent to her family from the public, including images of her dead body in the car in which she was shot

Martin Luther King, Jr. told Viola Liuzzo’s family that she did not die in vain, but her family found little comfort in his words. After she died, the public attacked Liuzzo for leaving her family behind to join a protest, and for associating with African Americans (especially men). A Ladies’ Home Journal poll revealed that about half their readers believed she had brought the death upon herself.

J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, seized the opportunity to deflect the blame from the FBI’s misstep by failing to protect the public from KKK violence. Fueling the smear campaign against Liuzzo, the FBI released her psychiatric records, revealing that she had a nervous breakdown. Adding insult to injury, the media called her a n*****r lover, and her children were harassed on their way to school. Her surviving husband never recovered, and began to drink heavily.

The worst part of all of this… comes in two parts.

One: that the day after her murder, President Lyndon Johnson announced in a press conference that four men had been arrested for her murder. With an all-white-male judge and jury, every single last one was acquitted.

The impact on her family was felt for decades. None of her children have had stable marriages, and all have experienced a sense of ongoing loss and brokenness, surely made worse by the government’s complicity in their mother’s death.

Liuzzo’s husband repeatedly requested that her wedding ring be returned to him. Finally, the FBI sent it to the family, two years after he died.

Her son sued the FBI, and the agency admitted to shredding more than 10,000 pages of documents connected with her death, but they prevailed. To make matters sickeningly worse, a judge later ruled that the family pay the government $80,000 in court fees. 

No words, folks. No. Words.

20/20 did a report on the case, the public cried, “injustice!” and the court reversed its decision. A dumbfounding example of the legal system gone horribly, horribly wrong. And here we were still obsessive over Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias. Think about all the systemic injustice and corruption leading up to these 24-hour-news-cycle cases. It makes my head spin.

Viola Liuzzo: "Hate hurts the hater, not the hated. It eats you up. It's too consuming. It makes you so unhappy."

Viola Liuzzo: “Hate hurts the hater, not the hated. It eats you up. It’s too consuming. It makes you so unhappy.”

Peggy, all grown up, had a court run-in with one of the men responsible for her mother’s murder. All the tragedy and anguish caused by his and their collective act of violence… And she had the courage, without hesitation, to tell him she forgave him.

Love, it seems, will always prevail over hatred. You can break us, you can take our sanity, and our lives, but you can never take our spirit from us. And collectively – it is divine. 

The second reason why this has become a viciously ironic tale in the canon of nihilistic American social history is that the story arc is crescendoing again.

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments that challenged the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act recognized that certain states in the US have a history of rampant racism, and forces those states to submit any changes to election law to a review. They must also prove that the new election law is necessary and not racist.

This law has long been considered a major victory of the civil rights movement. Dr. King stood behind LBJ as he signed the bill with his presidential pen, and they shook hands in an historic moment of justice forged in the timeline of our national identity.

Yesterday, Justice Scalia called it a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Gasps were heard in the legislative lounge, where the proceedings were broadcast on the intercom. If, by racial entitlement, you mean the leveraging of White Privilege to maintain the Great White Order of things, aka white supremacy? Of course, you must also mean the idea that the color of a person’s skin determines their worth and value?

The more complex notion, also, that demographically black areas of the country tend to be more impoverished and lack access to certain resources, like good education and quality healthcare, consequently leaving the high school graduates in such at-risk areas without many opportunities to choose their future? Not to mention, the idea that white politicians have the right to gerrymander political districts to, for example, split up the Latino or black vote to diminish the electoral weight of the Democratic voting bloc?  You know, the thing that the law was all about in the first place!


No. Noooo, no. No, my <sarcasm>favorite</sarcasm> supreme court justice clearly did not mean that kind of racial entitlement. The kind that Liuzzo stood up against and died fighting.

Well, perhaps we should move to get a more accurate idea of what he meant exactly. Let’s break it down.

“I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

In English?

He’s tired of black people having so many pesky rights “attributed” to them, to borrow his term. Those people of color – so demanding! 

But enough from me. From Yahoo:

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a major figure in the civil rights movement who was a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said on MSNBC that he was appalled by the comment. “It is an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for, what people died for, what people bled for, and those of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement,” he said. “We wanted to open up the political process and let all of the people come in, and it didn’t matter whether they were black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American.”

NAACP President Ben Jealous told ABC News, “The protection of the right to vote is an American entitlement. It is a democratic entitlement. And those who would seek to use incendiary rhetoric from the bench of the Supreme Court should think twice about their place in history.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson also criticized his remark.

Later on Wednesday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to indirectly reprimand Scalia for the comment, asking Shelby County’s attorney Bert Rein whether he believes the right to vote protected under the act is a racial entitlement. Rein answered, “No.”

Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University and a fellow at the liberal think tank Demos, told Yahoo News that Scalia’s comment represented a “political assumption that has no place in a court of law. His assumption raises questions about his ability to approach this case in an impartial manner, and it also suggests that the question of the persistence of voting discrimination is best left to Congress,” Overton wrote in an email.

I think that his comment is particularly ignorant considering how unbearably ironic it is, for one thing, but also given the recency of real voter suppression. See: the robocalls telling black and Latino voters that election day was two days after the fact, or that they didn’t need to vote at all! I even got mail from the Republican party telling me that my day to vote was the next Tuesday!

The only entitlement, Justice Scalia — is that you feel it is appropriate for you to continue as a member of our Supreme Court, given the cloud of bigotry and ignorance you have just revealed is your personal sphere of existence. I don’t think you’re entitled to be a voice of justice and the law in any court.

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