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Honoring a hero

Exactly half a century ago, the nation was waking up to how terrible segregation was in the deep South, thanks in large part to television. In early March, TV brought horrifying images into homes across the country of black people being beaten, tear-gassed and clubbed as they attempted to peacefully march across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama.

One of those watching was a 39-year-old Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzzo, a part-time student at Wayne State University. She was outraged and felt she had to do something. So, even though she had five young children, she went south.

Less than three weeks later, she took part in the famous Selma to Montgomery march, and had heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak to a crowd of 50,000, who were mainly marching for the right to vote. Afterwards, she drove some of the marchers back, in her sky-blue ‘63 Oldsmobile.

Later that evening, she was with a young fellow marcher, a teenage boy named LeRoy Moten, when they noticed they were being followed by a red-and-white Chevy Impala.

They were Klansmen. They chased her car for miles, at speeds sometimes approaching 100 miles an hour. Then they drew even with it, and one of them blew Viola Liuzzo away.

She would be the only white woman to lose her life in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and her death was not in vain. Her murder helped persuade Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Soon, hundreds of thousands of black Americans were registering across the South, and the old politics began to die.

But back in Detroit, there was little comfort for the Liuzzo family. There was a huge funeral, but then her husband, a minor Teamsters union official, and her five kids were just supposed to go back to work and school and get on with their lives. There were no grief counselors then. And as you might expect, the forgotten family had a hard time.

Tony Liuzzo began drinking hard, and ended up in an early grave.

Most of their kids had problems. To add insult to injury, a Ladies Home Journal poll showed that most women thought Liuzzo had no business leaving her kids to go demonstrate.

Viola Liuzzo would have been 90 next week.  And finally, at last, Wayne State is doing something to honor her legacy, thanks in large part to the efforts of Jocelyn Benson, the dean of the law school, a crusader in her own right who is even younger today than Viola was when she died. The Liuzzo family is coming in for a week of commemoration.

Wayne State is at long last giving her a posthumous degree. There will be ceremonies in various churches Sunday. On Monday night, Morris Dees, the legendary head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, will give a speech at Wayne Law School that’s open to the public.

For her family, this is justice long overdue. Hours before she died, Viola heard Martin Luther King tell the marchers that the road ahead would not always be a smooth one, and that they were still in for “a season of suffering.”

Liuzzo’s sacrifice, like King’s, helped smooth that road and shorten that suffering. And what better epitaph could anyone have than that? 

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