A Memory from the Days when Viola Liuzzo Was Murdered
Reading in the NPR post by Karen Grigsby Bates (http://portside.org/2013-08-13/viola-liuzzo-killed-taking-part-everybodys-fight) about murdered civil rights hero Viola Liuzzo (killed by the Klan in Selma in the 60s) being thereafter baselessly maligned by Hoover and assorted racists hardly surprised me as I lived through it myself as a kid, when I was a SNCC field worker in Georgia, and I’ve heard it all. I was down there myself when Viola Liuzzo was killed, and when the three boys were killed in Mississippi, and various others killed, and I was doing what they were doing, and I felt that murdering chill wind blow all the way across to the bad counties of southwest Georgia, where I was, “black and white together.” We felt that murderous chill deeply and it was a lonely feeling, we “outside agitators” and local folks alike. That Hoover then invented some dirty nonsense about Viola Liuzzo who died so other Americans could be free, or that white folks way up north burned a cross on her family’s lawn, or thought “she should have minded her own business,” that is exactly how I remember it, also.
But in freely acknowledging the negatives, the resistance, rogue FBI men, Klansmen, all those who averted their eyes and minded their shops and their business, all the usual suspects and evil demons banal and otherwise, let’s not ourselves fail to pause and frankly consider the stark amazing fact of the sheer goodness and wonderfulness of Viola Liuzzo herself. That is the central fact in the piece and one to draw sustenance from. This was not a kid, this was a middle-aged woman, a solid citizen, a white NAACP member. We kids had our wild romantic kind of courage, but Mrs. Liuzzo was a more thoughtful sort of person, who had to have weighed the consequences and known the score, who had a lot more to lose and knew it.
Reading in Karen Bates’s NPR piece that Viola Liuzzo has been forgotten, a park that is named after her neglected, in Detroit where she came from, or anywhere else, now that came as a strange shock to me, for there was no one more famous when I was a SNCC kid, and I could have as well forgotten my own name as hers. Not that I knew anything about her, just what she did. Weird to think someone so famous to me is not generally known, well, we all have that feeling sometimes. Everybody in the Movement, white or black, and all the black people who maybe weren’t active in the Movement, but lived in its atmosphere, its penumbra, in those tumultuous times, knew of Viola Liuzzo.
That Viola Liuzzo is receiving posthumous awards and that Dr. King’s son consoles her daughter could not be more welcome and overdue. But back in the evil day, her sacrifice galvanized and ennobled thousands, and encouraged thousands in the Civil Rights Movement. Those were the folks whom you never hear of and are surely forgotten, the “foot soldiers,” the ones who really carried the Movement, and so in a sense can never be forgotten, and they were vividly aware of Viola Liuzzo and helped on by her. That was the real award for her. I wish I could tell her daughter just how famous and beloved her mother was among thousands and thousands of souls, of people across the South in those days, and was not forgotten, and was never forgotten by them. Because she lived and shared their worst fate and nightmare. Mrs. Cheney commented about her murdered son, “They done him like a dog.” I felt the sting and the dull ache of that back then. Mrs. Liuzzo sacrificed everything, she symbolized everything good about America, and for us white kids in the Movement, she reminded us of exactly what we were doing and were up against, and ennobled in her fate our own smaller contributions. We knew exactly what she had done, knew her fate in our bones, knew the hope and Christly spirit her memory embodies to this day, a real American of the best and finest sort. Back then I couldn’t have told you who the Vice President was but I could tell you who Viola Liuzzo was, as she was one of the most famous people in the world, to me.
A friend of mine recently remembered an incident that shows the significance of Viola Liuzzo back in those dark days. He was down there in Selma at the time, in his case arriving in Selma right after she had been killed. He was the SNCC troubleshooter Randy Battle who was sent to Selma to help out right after the murder. His memory of the night after the murder tells powerfully how much Viola Liuzzo’s sacrifice meant to the ordinary folks around there, and how famous she was then, and how her sacrifice had electrified the people and moved them on their way. Talk about not likely ever to be forgotten. I wish Viola Liuzzo’s daughter could read this and know how her mother’s sacrifice empowered the people at the time when it really counted and how it outraged them and gave them raw courage to keep going. I think Randy’s memory of this one incident symbolizes and gives a sense of exactly what those rough bad days were like and the context of the tragedy of Viola Liuzzo and the meaning of it for the Movement. One reason the Movement carried the day is that it was everywhere, or as far as white folks were concerned, “trouble everywhere.” Randy Battle and I and some other friends recently put together a book of memories from those times (The Great Pool Jump and Other Stories from the Civil Rights Movement), and in it is the following account from Randy Battle:
“You know when Viola Liuzzo got killed over there in Alabama, I was sitting up in the Atlanta SNCC office, and they called the SNCC office there in Atlanta, and told us she got killed, and old Bob Mants, he was the project director over there and he needed some help. Me and a gal named Cynthia Washington, we jumped in old Featherstone’s car . . . I had me my pocket knife was all and we was going over there and fight crackers! It was a SNCC car, that Plymouth. So she and I took off to Alabama. . . .
“Anyway, we went to that mass meeting over there that first night [after the murder of Viola Liuzzo]. Stokely Carmichael was over there too. He was the main speaker. The meeting was in the main Baptist church in Lowndes County, it was way out in the country. You know, they shot her on the highway as she was driving, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, and we were over there and we was having a mass meeting, and look here, man, them crackers got a rumor that Martin Luther King was coming and they came out there to start some trouble and them crackers pulled up there in droves! That church was out in the country—way out in the country. The crackers pulled up on both roads that went up to that church and they parked there in dozens of cars. And every path that you could come up through to get to the church they had their headlights on and pointed at the church and they drove up there and they started to getting out of their cars. But them niggers was there waiting on them. And you talking about shotguns and rifles and about every kind of weapon you could name! There was people out from the church watching for them, we knew they were coming. And them niggers’ trunks started popping open and they were getting out their shotguns and starting meeting them crackers, and they flipped on their headlights too and them crackers backed out. They got the idea that they had bit off a little more than they wanted to chew and they got back in their cars and backed out and they got back the hell away from there! Now they didn’t rush about it, one and two, they just took off, where they parked all alongside the road. . . .
“And so after the meeting we leave, like, there was about five or six SNCC cars, and they were interspersed with all the others, every so often, for protection to the folks, and you in the first SNNC car you leave and you get to a road where somebody got to turn off , the whole row a cars got to stop and wait on the side of the road until you go on up there about a half a mile off the road or whatever to their house and turn around and come back and somebody else turns off and the second SNCC car rides with them and everybody has to wait together and it took us damn near all night to get home, it was damn near day in the morning after the meeting closed down till when we got where we was sleeping at. I don’t think there was no more trouble by then, them crackers had backed down, and they done enough damage already, they had killed Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, so that was that, they thought. But you know, we were into sticking together and that was what the SNCC kids was there for, to give the people some little bit of cover. So we drove along with half the people home with them.”
That of course was what Viola Liuzzo was doing, too, driving people home after a meeting, giving “the people a little bit of cover,” only the Klan had her marked by then, and there would be no cover for her.
My friend the SNCC troubleshooter Randy Battle goes on in his recollection (in The Great Pool Jump) of the mass meeting the night after the murder:
“They thought Martin Luther King was coming to that mass meeting, them crackers. The crackers was coming to kill King. But Stokely Carmichael was the guest speaker. We came real early to the church. Them young niggers—them young niggers—everybody that came brought a gun, cause we already knew, we had got the message that they was going to come and raid the church. And wasn’t nobody standing for that crap that night. You know, it was do or die. And I was standing up there with a .25 automatic ha ha ha ha ha! But I think if it hadn’t been for us them niggers would’ve started shooting that night. But we were supposed to be nonviolent. . . . Stokely never stopped speaking. Stokely just kept on talking inside the church. Some of them came out the door to look at it but the meeting never was interrupted.
“That meeting was for Viola Liuzzo, you know, but it was always really about the Movement. SNCC was always looking for any excuse to get people together and rile them up and make progress, even on an occasion like that, especially then of course. You know how it is, a preacher come to a funeral, and instead of burying the dead, he’s trying to save souls. Viola Liuzzo was killed there in Lowndes County, and she had carried somebody someplace back home from a meeting and on her way home the crackers they shot her in her car. She run off through a fence up there somewhere. They let her go and drop off whoever she was taking home and on her way back they just shot her. They did a lot a folks like that. I don’t even believe we got the numbers on them all they did like that. Some got shot and lived and you didn’t hear much about it. Plenty died or got hurt in the Movement, and it was just too much to keep track of, unless of course a white woman was involved. Don’t get me wrong, she is as much a hero as Dr. King himself. But Dr. King not the only one been assassinated. Many were barely remembered at the time, I don’t know how you would find out all their names who were murdered then.
“They were crazy times I’m going to tell you. And I’ll tell you what. It wasn’t no good feeling times neither. Like me, I’d be running that road by myself, and I would always have me something. You know, at least like a pistol or something. Or my knife. But that aint sayin nothing because I might well go out naked as without ol Bess. But I knew it wasn’t worth a damn if I got surrounded by crackers. I didn’t want to jeopardize nobody else’s life, so I just went by myself. And got away with it. And how I don’t know. Because I’m driving with a Dougherty County tag or a Fulton County tag and they know I’m a freedom rider. And I would be driving up and down them lonesome highways and them back roads at two and three in the morning. That’s where they usually catch you at, down them back roads, that where they know you coming down, they know you not going to stay on the main highway, you going to sort of sneak through the back way. And I have been so doggone scared I couldn’t talk plain!”
I hope she is never forgotten, but I hope as well we don’t just leave Viola Liuzzo up on that pedestal with Martin Luther King to be taken down and dusted off in February. That is a fate almost worse than having your memory maligned by a Hoover. But I guess it is inevitable. She was never so famous or alive as when she was about to be forgotten by the dead souls of the world. What Viola Liuzzo has always meant to me is the common people with a big, full heart. The ones who do something and risk everything without worrying too much about it. Randy Battle was a guy like that too. It is great to see Viola Liuzzo recalled and celebrated, and I like to remember and celebrate Randy too. His memory of the night afterward at the meeting with Stokely Carmichael preaching when there was almost a shootout shows what the people thought of Viola Liuzzo at the time and the high feeling her murder had left in them. His story reminds of the great multitude of such people, too, the thousands and thousands in the Movement, who were moved by her courage, who did the same thing she was doing, who were never known to be forgotten. That’s why the Movement won. The good people were too numerous in the end. The Klansmen, like the mockers of Christ, are the ones who are truly forgotten, unknowing, unreal, dust in the wind, without significance. Ultimately it is the goodness that can’t and never will be forgotten, and that keeps on coming, you can be sure of that.