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'It was her destiny'

Grants Pass woman, sister remember a mother who fought injustice, paid with her life

Stories by PAUL FATTIG

Two movies were slated for the drive-in theater near Detroit one summer night in the late 1950s when Viola Liuzzo piled her children into the family car.

One was the Disney classic Pinocchio; the other an unremarkable espionage flick called Hell and High Water.

Here were all these families with their kids ready to watch 'Pinocchio,' recalled daughter Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, now 57, of Grants Pass. The sun goes down and 'Hell and High Water' comes on the screen. The horns start honking.

Her mother promptly got out and began going car to car to organize the mothers. The group marched en masse to the theater operator to ask that Pinocchio be shown first for the children.

— Before she got back to the car, 'Pinocchio' was on, Lilleboe said.

Yet for nearly 40 years, those warm memories of her mother were overshadowed by the hatred and turmoil that erupted after Viola Liuzzo was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan on March 25, 1965. She had just participated in the historic voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. that began March 21 in Selma, Ala., and ended at the Capitol building in Montgomery.

Liuzzo was the only white woman killed during America's civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.

The national outrage caused by her brutal death at age 39 has been cited by civil rights historians as one of the turning points in the battle to win equality for all Americans.

But bigots and racists continued to hate her even in death.

After all, this was 1965.

A white woman from Detroit, the mother of five and wife of a Teamsters official, had the audacity to allow a black teenage male to ride with her in her car while they were ferrying marchers to the airport.

The family also believes that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, mindful that one of the four KKK members who attacked her was an FBI informant, launched a smear campaign to deflect attention from his agency's alleged role in her death. She was accused of being a communist, having needle marks from drug use and being sexually involved with civil rights activists, none of which was true.

We didn't just lose our mom who we loved ' she was replaced with this nightmare, Lilleboe said.

Our mom was never politically motivated, explained Lilleboe's sister, Penny Liuzzo Herrington, 58, of Fresno, Calif., who was visiting Grants Pass last week.

It was about caring, Herrington continued. If she saw an injustice, if at all possible she could right that injustice, she was right there to do something about it.

The sisters were among those re-enacting the march from Selma to Montgomery earlier this month. Lilleboe will be in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday, the 40th anniversary of her mother's death, as a guest of the United Negro College Fund which is sponsoring an event honoring Liuzzo.

Lilleboe was 17 when their mother was murdered; Herrington was 18.

The other siblings include Tom, 14, at the time of the murder, and Tony, who was 10 in March 1965. Tom now lives in Alabama; Tony in Michigan.

The youngest sibling, Sally, was 6. She is now Sally Liuzzo Prado and lives in the Grants Pass area with her family.

Their father, Anthony James Liuzzo, died in 1978.

We didn't know there was a civil rights issue until we got to be of a social age, Lilleboe said. Our mother's best friend was a black woman. We were raised with her young children. We were like sisters and brothers.

That was Sarah Evans, who died Jan. 25 at age 95. She and Viola met during the World War II era, becoming best friends.

Our mother was color blind, Herrington said. And when she saw a wrong, she wanted to help fix it.

The women say their mother, who was reared in poverty in Tennessee and Georgia, understood what it was like to be part of a group, whether poor or a minority, that was targeted for injustice.

After Sarah Evans told their mother about one incident of racial injustice, the sisters recalled seeing their mother cry.

At some point in their relationship, our mom said, 'Sarah, we're going to change this world,' Lilleboe said.

We feel like it was her destiny, her older sister added. But there were so many unsung heroes from that period.

In retrospect, the sisters aren't surprised their mother answered the call from King for civil rights action after a March 7, 1965, march ended with Alabama state troopers beating participants bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. The civil rights leader called out to the nation to join in a second march to deliver a petition to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, demanding voting rights for all.

Mom asked Sarah pointblank if she would take care of her kids if anything happened to her in Alabama, Lilleboe said.

Sarah did become our second mother, the grandmother to our children, Herrington observed.

Viola Liuzzo was among those who began the historic trek on March 21, but stepped out of the column that eventually grew to 25,000 to help tend those who needed first-aid. She rejoined the integrated group on the final leg on March 25.

We were home that evening, Herrington recalled of their house in Detroit. She had called to say the march was done. She said she would be home the next night or the day after. We were really happy.

But the news brought by the jangling telephone at midnight killed that happiness: Their mother had been shot and killed on the road between Selma and Montgomery after delivering a carload of marchers to the airport.

Our dad started screaming and I started screaming, 'Mommy's dead! Mommy's dead!' Herrington said. Then little Sally came in and saw everybody on the couch crying.

That night was horrible enough. But what happened in the ensuing weeks and months was worse, Lilleboe said.

You really don't know hatred until you experience it on the level we did, she said. Sally was stoned on the way to school. And this was by adults, not by youngsters. Garbage was thrown at our house.

A cross was burned on our lawn, her sister added.

Mail was no longer delivered to the house because of the volumes of hate mail. One particularly hurtful item was a KKK magazine containing a photograph of their mother's bloody body.

Although there also were many gestures of support, the angry hostility toward their mother's memory blocked out the happy years before her death, the sisters said.

That changed when they began help with a documentary about her life four years ago.

Memories like their mother organizing moms at the drive-in theater now illuminate the past.

Our house was the house where our friends wanted to be, Herrington recalled. We loved our mom. She was great. She took us on hikes, rock hunting, antiquing, picking blueberries.

Once, when the older sister and a friend were watching a scary movie on television in the basement, Viola Liuzzo popped up in a scary mask, scaring the bejabbers out of them.

Like all teenagers, they also remember a few times when they could have done without some of their maternal parent's antics.

We were embarrassed sometimes by her when we were young, Lilleboe said. We used to think, 'Why couldn't she just be like Beaver Cleaver's mom?'

Consider the time then- Michigan Gov. George W. Romney proposed for a day of driving with vehicle lights on to promote safety.

After drivers continually honked to let their mother know her lights were on, she stopped at a store for some markers and wrote boldly on the car, My lights are on for Gov. Romney's safety program.

The sisters were mortified.

We were thinking, 'Please, mom, couldn't you just turn the lights off,' Lilleboe recalled with a laugh, later adding, She was fun to be around.

In recent years they have spent time contemplating the legacy of the woman who wasn't afraid to speak out or take action to help the underdog.

What she did was not well respected or well accepted in that era, Lilleboe said of their mother's willingness to step forward at a time when women were often silent. It was very much frowned upon.

The sisters have been active in their own way.

Herrington, the mother of four sons, joined a group called Mothers Against the Draft.

But she has also been cautious because of their mother's early death.

My prayer at night was always, 'Please God, don't let me die and leave my kids,' she said. I knew what it was like.

Both are immensely proud of their mother.

For me, what her death helped happen has become bigger than the loss to me, Lilleboe said. That's a wonderful, wonderful feeling to finally have.

But it's sad it took the death of a white woman to get the attention of the people who could make a difference, she added. And that had to hurt a lot of people who had already lost loved ones and suffered horrible crimes.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

Sisters Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, left, of Grants Pass, and Penny Liuzzo Herrington of Fresno, Calif., show a picture of their mother, Viola Liuzzo, holding their little brother Tom. Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven