One car carried Viola Liuzzo and Leroy Moton. The other carried four Klansmen.
The latter pulled alongside the former on a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. The Klansmen fired into Liuzzo’s car, killing her instantly. Moton survived by playing dead when the Klansmen returned to see what they’d done.
The murder took place on March 25, 1965, after the Selma to Montgomery March. Liuzzo had traveled to Alabama from Michigan to take part in voting rights demonstrations following the beating of marchers at EdmundPettusBridge on March 7.
On the night of March 25, she was ferrying marchers from Montgomery back to Selma when the Klan caught up with her, white, and Moton, black.
One of the four men in the car, as it turned out, was an undercover FBI agent named Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. The three Klansmen were variously acquitted of murder in Alabama state courts but found guilty in federal court of conspiring to deprive Liuzzo of her civil rights. They were given 10 years in prison.
Liuzzo’s death is commemorated with a tombstone at the site of the shooting, not far from Wright Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, between Lowndesboro and White Hall on the famous highway.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s W.O.M.E.N.—an acronym for Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now—erected the memorial marker years ago. It originally stood unhampered, approachable by all, devoid of protective fencing.
But through the years, as it reminded everyone of a brutal slaying during the struggle for civil rights, it became the object of vandalism. One morning passersby noticed a Confederate flag painted on it.
Such acts prompted W.O.M.E.N. to build a fence around the marker, hoping to deter future vandals. The monument still stands, fence and all, and is visited by many on various civil rights pilgrimages and tours.
Liuzzo’s death wasn’t the only one associated with the Selma to Montgomery March. The Reverend James Reeb from Boston was killed in Selma just days after the beating at the Pettus Bridge. A local man beat him with a stick, causing severe brain injuries. Reeb’s memorial marker stands not at the site of the beating, but in the courtyard of Selma’s Old Depot Museum.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by a state trooper in Marion, Ala., after a march at the local courthouse. His death prompted the idea for a march to Montgomery, so activists could lay his body at the steps of the capitol building. Jackson’s tombstone in Marion has also been repeatedly vandalized—found with roughly 13 bullet holes in it on one occasion, and knocked over on another. Caretakers built a brick wall around it.
Kirk Savage wrote in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity that “monuments can be reappropriated, combated with countermonuments, or even … taken back down.”
They can also be vandalized, as in the case of the Liuzzo and Jackson memorials—further evidence that demonstrations haven’t ceased.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
See the Viola Liuzzo marker after it was vandalized with a Confederate flag at the SCLC W.O.M.E.N., Inc. Web site.