On this day in history, Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist 39-year-old civil rights activist from Michigan, and mother of five children, traveled to Selma, Alabama to help coordinate logistics for civil rights initiatives. Following a trip to the Montgomery airport to shuttle fellow activists she was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan, while driving.
Mrs. Liuzzo had been inspired to go to Alabama after watching television footage of state troopers attacking freedom marchers on “Bloody Sunday” on March 7. Hours after the successful Selma-to-Montgomery march ended, Mrs. Liuzzo and Leroy Moton, a nineteen-year-old local black activist, were driving back to Montgomery to pick up the last group of demonstrators waiting to return to Selma.
Four Klansmen chased down Mrs. Liuzzo’s car. About 20 miles outside of Selma, the klansmen pulled up beside the car and one aimed his pistol out the window and shot Mrs. Liuzzo, shattering her skull. Moton grabbed the wheel and hit the brakes, and the car crashed into an embankment. When the klansmen walked over to inspect their work, Moton faked his death while they shone a light in the car. As soon as they left, Moton flagged down a truck carrying more civil rights workers, and although he was terrified, he was uninjured. Viola Liuzzo was dead.
One of the drivers of the car carrying the Klansmen, and possibly Mrs. Liuzzo’s shooter, was Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., an FBI informant who had participated in the 1961 beatings of Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned that Mr. Rowe’s history of violence against civil rights activists and close ties to the FBI would harm the agency’s public image, proceeded to “leak” reports about Mrs. Liuzzo as being an unstable woman who had abandoned her husband and children and traveled to Selma for interracial sex and drugs.
None of these reports were proven or substantiated in any way.
Mr. Rowe later testified against the three other Klansmen who were with him on the night of Mrs. Liuzzo’s murder. They were acquitted by an all-white jury but were later convicted of federal civil rights violations. This was the first conviction of murder in a civil rights case and was a landmark in southern racial history. It was also the first time the federal government successfully prosecuted a case of civil rights conspiracy.
In 1978, investigations revealed that Rowe, the FBI informant, may have been involved in the bombing of a church in 1963 where four black girls were killed. In November of 1978, a grand jury indicted Rowe for the murder of Viola Liuzzo, but he fought the extradition proceedings against him. In 1980, an FBI file revealed that Rowe had clubbed Freedom Riders and that the FBI had paid his medical bills and given him a $125 bonus. The Liuzzo children sued the FBI for $2 million, blaming Rowe and the FBI for the murder. A federal judge blocked Rowe’s extradition to Alabama. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Liuzzos got Rowe into court, but the judge threw out the case and ordered the family to pay back the government $80,000 in court costs. The family appealed and the fine was voided.