From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo
by Mary Stanton
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998, $24.95.

reviewed by Steve Watkins

March/April 1999
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Three civil rights workers were murdered in connection with the famous 1965 voting rights march from Selma, AL, to Montgomery. One, a young black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson, died the month before the march at the hands of state police while trying to protect his mother and grandfather, who were being beaten by other troopers during a voting rights demonstration.  The march was organized in response to his death. Jackson’s murderer was acquitted. 

The other two who died were white northerners, and both Unitarian Universalists. The Rev. James Reeb, from Boston, ran into a gang of white extremists after taking a wrong turn in Selma two weeks before the march. “You want to know what it’s like to be a real nigger?” they asked. Then they fractured his skull with a baseball bat. He died two days later. His murderers were also acquitted. 

And then there was Viola Liuzzo, mother of five, a part-time student at Detroit’s Wayne State University, wife of a high-ranking Teamsters official.  Liuzzo was chased down by Ku Klux Klan members while driving from Selma to Montgomery the day after the triumphant march, on her way to pick up marchers and drive them back to Montgomery.  The murderers pulled alongside Liuzzo and shot her with a high-powered rifle, killing her instantly.  Her car rolled into a field.  Covered with her blood, Leroy Moton, the young black civil rights worker who had been riding beside her, pretended that he, too, was dead when the Klansmen came back to check.  Like the men who killed Reeb and Jackson, Liuzzo’s killers were acquitted of murder in Alabama courts, though they later were convicted on federal civil rights charges in connection with her killing. 

For a brief moment after the murder, Liuzzo was a martyr, mourned by the nation, her murder condemned by then-President Lyndon Johnson. That moment faded quickly, though, as the stories about her started spreading: that she was sexually involved with Moton, that she had abandoned her family, that she had a drug problem, that she had been institutionalized for emotional problems, that her husband had mob connections. 

Some of the stories came from the Klan, some from the local Alabama police, seeking to deflect attention from their failure, indeed their refusal, to protect the civil rights marchers.  But many of the stories, which had scant basis in fact, came from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, on orders from the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. The reason: an FBI informant had been riding with the Klansmen who murdered Liuzzo; he may even have been the one who shot her. Like the local police, the FBI wanted to squirm out of the harsh glare of negative publicity, and demonizing Liuzzo was the way to do it. The rumors about Liuzzo spread, and they stuck: Liuzzo wasn’t a civil rights martyr, she was a bad mother, she was crazy, she was looking for a cause, she was asking for it. 

It has taken more than 30 years, but finally writer Mary Stanton has set the record straight, and more.  Stanton depicts Liuzzo as both of her times and ahead of them. In Stanton’s book Liuzzo comes alive as a loving mother and a dedicated civil rights volunteer but also as a woman seeking to define herself in ways we would only later come to understand and appreciate from a progressive, feminist perspective. 

A meticulously researched account of Liuzzo’s life and death, From Selma to Sorrow draws heavily on oral histories, newspaper, magazine, and television reports, and most importantly, long-concealed FBI files to tell the true story of her case. It’s a story that is even more disturbing today than it was at the time, because it chronicles not only what happened to Liuzzo--her brutal murder, the travesties of the trials of her murderers, the FBI assault on her reputation--but also the cost to her family, which crumbled under the relentless and mostly phantom attacks on her character. 

At one point Stanton describes Unitarian Universalists as “liberal Christians,” but that’s about the only thing she doesn’t get quite right. In fact, of particular interest to UUs will be those brief passages that discuss the ways in which Unitarian Universalism helped lead Liuzzo, and Reeb before her, on the path toward their commitment to social justice. Although that commitment cost them their lives, not even the worst efforts of the Klan, the Alabama judicial system, and the FBI could deny them their essential humanity. 

Mary Stanton helps make sure we all remember that. 

Steve Watkins is an associate professor of English at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA, and author of The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire.  He belongs to the UU Fellowship of Fredericksburg, VA.


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