The call went out. Volunteers were needed. The march from Selma, Alabama to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery was going to be attempted again. People black and white traveled to the area from everywhere to assist in the event.
Living in Detroit at the time with her husband and five children, Viola decided to drive to Alabama and volunteer, it took three days to drive to Selma in her Oldsmobile. Viola Liuzzo saw the way blacks were treated (Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965) on national television broadcasts and answered the call. On Sunday March 21, 1965, marchers again crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On the first day Viola marched across the bridge and on the last day from St. Jude’s Church to the Alabama State capitol on the last day. The night of March 24th, Viola, stayed at St. Jude’s complex of buildings in Montgomery. After the march was completed, help was needed to ferry the marchers from Montgomery back to Selma after the long 52 mile walk in March of 1965.
On March 25th, late afternoon when Selma to Montgomery marchers were beginning to disperse. From the beginning of the March at Brown Chapel in Selma to the end of the March in Montgomery the U.S. Army and federal law enforcement agencies keep everyone safe. However the protection began to wind down. Marchers were finding there way from Montgomery. Bus depots and airports experienced extreme traffic. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black taxi cab drivers began to legally carry white passengers. Thousands needed to return to Selma, Wilcox, Perry counties and other Alabama towns. Many marchers relied on car pools to get back home.
Leroy Moton, a young African-American served on the transportation committee with Viola. When the rally ended both of them tried to fill Viola’s car with as many marchers as they could to make their way back to Selma.
Four KKK members from Bessemer, Alabama a suburb of Birmingham tried all day to get close to Dr King. They had plans or killing him. By night fall they were disappointed but still motivated to do something against the marchers. No one knew that one of the Klansman was a FBI informant.
On the two-lane highway section of US-80 in Lowndes County, Liuzzo and Moton realized they were being chased. The Klan members manage to drive alongside of Viola and Leroy and opened fire. Moton was not hit, he grabs the steering wheel and brings the care to a stop. When the Klansman turn around and come back to check on their crime, Leroy remained motionless pretending to be dead. Viola was shot in the head and killed instantly.
In less than 24 hours the FBI announce the arrest of the four Klansmen. Charges against the informant were dropped, and given immunity in return for testifying in court against the others. The State of Alabama along with local sympathetic law enforcement released the killers on bail. Leroy Moton headed north to escape the death threats by the Klan before the trial.
On May 3, 1965, just six weeks after the murder, the trial began. Under heavy guard, Leroy Moton and the informant, Gary Rowe appear in court for the prosecution. The jury failed to agree and the next day the deliberations were cancelled and a mistrial declared. The jury voted 10 to 2 guilty.
In December of 1965, the defendants were tried again, this time, in Federal Court. The three Klansmen, were convicted of violating the civil rights, a federal crime, of Viola Liuzzo and sentenced to a maximum 10 years in prison. Murder is a state crime and would have had a possibly longer sentence for the killers. The informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, was given a $10,000 bonus by the Federal government for his work.
On March 29th, in Detroit, Viola’s Liuzzo was memorialized. The service was sponsored by the NAACP . Dr. King and 750 attended the televised service. Viola’s answered to the “call” so did many others. Many volunteers traveled to Alabama to help with the march from all over the United States. The Selma march remains an iconic event in the civil rights movement fifty years later.
sources: website; Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
Books; From Selma to Sorrow; Life & Death of Viola Liuzzo