Just off the 50 mile stretch of road between Selma and Montgomery, at a slightly raised spot behind wrought iron to protect it from vandals, two memorials for the same woman sit side by side. There is no larger sign to announce the place just on the south side of the four-lane highway; look for mile marker number 111. That’s how we found it in fall of 2014, on the way back from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard of Viola Liuzzo. Her murder was a brief scene in a movie I watched on television, maybe the 1990 retelling of the story of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, Murder in Mississippi. Bullets fired from a car with four Ku Klux Klan members riding inside killed the 39-year-old woman who’d come Mississippi after seeing the brutal beating of marchers during the first Selma-to-Montgomery march. She died instantly after being shot in the face, the same day she ferried participants who’d taken part in the third walk from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965. Her one passenger, Leroy Moton, pretended to be dead and survived.
There are many, many martyrs to the cause of civil rights in the 1960s. I saw the reminders of their sacrifices on this trip to the south, a combination Civil War/Civil Rights “tour” for almost two weeks. The trip took us to the powerful Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. As a native of the south, where family trees branch through documents of the sale of other human beings, we traveled to where my husband’s great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy at Stone Creek Battlefield just outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee. After a few other stops, including a trip to the Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, we found ourselves on Highway 80.
The trip, in part, was a pilgrimage to find Viola’s memorial along the road after seeing her name etched into the curved black granite monument created by Maya Lin in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. I wondered about this woman not quite 40 years old when she was so moved by the beating of protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge that she felt the call to leave her family behind and make a dangerous pilgrimage “to change the world.” Among many who sacrificed, she became the only white female protestor to be killed during the civil rights period in the 1960s.
When she saw the beatings on television, Viola told her husband: “It’s everybody’s fight.” I was too young for that fight, and I wonder what I would have done if I had been an adult during those times. Until 8th grade, I held to the same prejudices as my family, as those who murdered her. By the time I reached high school, I tried to leave those prejudices behind to travel a new road. If I’d been 20, 25, 30 in the 1960s, would I have had to courage to be drawn to the center of that struggle for human rights? Hard to know. I might have believed that my white skin, my being female would have protected me. I won’t say that Viola believed the same, but I can tell that she embraced a mission to join those who’d suffered greatly to work toward their emancipation, and probably knew at some level that there would be risk in doing so.
I look forward to seeing the movie, Selma, in spite of some of the controversies. Those are not important. The film moved John Lewis, a hero of that struggle, brutally beaten on that bridge during the march that caused Viola Liuzzo to act. It’s one way to honor those who gave up so much—by immersing ourselves in their stories. And among those stories is a woman who deserves to be remembered, along with many others who lived their courage.