Civil rights heroine's story leaves question

November 22, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

ON MARCH 25, 1965, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit housewife, was driving with a black man named Leroy Moton from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. A quartet of Ku Klux Klansmen tailing the car pulled up alongside Liuzzo and shot her to death.

Hundreds of miles away, Mary Stanton had finished her job as a secretary at a Manhattan brokerage firm. Only 18 and out of high school for a year, Stanton had little knowledge of the civil rights movement. But feminist leanings were beginning to stir within her. She knew she didn't want to get married and have a house in the suburbs or, in her words, spend the rest of her career being required to "make and serve the boss' coffee [and] water his plants."

Stanton learned of Liuzzo's death from a television newscast the next evening. She followed the story of Liuzzo's murder in the papers and on television the next few days. Stanton felt some kind of kinship with Liuzzo. But she soon learned she was very much alone.

"It was the reaction of my neighborhood and my parents even," Stanton said, that led to her interest in Liuzzo's murder. "The lack of compassion for this woman." Liuzzo was excoriated as an unfit mother who had abandoned her husband and five children to go South and have an affair with the 19-year-old Moton.

"The hatred with which people attacked her -- white people, especially white women -- frightened me," Stanton wrote in "From Selma to Sorrow," her biography of Liuzzo.

Stanton grew up in a white working-class neighborhood in Queens. It was a community where residents felt the civil rights movement was going too fast. Whites in the civil rights movement were seen, Stanton recalled, as "not quite altogether, if not race traitors."

It was a neighborhood where the men sallied forth to work every morning and the womenfolk were expected to be dutiful housewives. Stanton's father was a truck driver for New York's ++ Sanitation Department during the day. Nights he worked maintenance at a racetrack. Her mother adhered to community standards, remaining at home and taking care of Stanton and her younger sister, Kathleen.

"You were supposed to stay at home and keep your mouth shut," Stanton said of the mores in 1965 working-class Queens.

It was a sentiment shared by others not living in Stanton's neighborhood. Law enforcement officers in Alabama and Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the state's Ku Klux Klan, echoed the sentiments that Liuzzo should have stayed in Detroit. Liuzzo's children were beaten up in school. Her sons Tony and Tom were called "nigger lovers." Someone hurled rocks at her daughter Sally, then all of 6 years old. Some KKK fellow travelers dumped garbage on the Liuzzos' lawn, burned a cross on it and fired shots through the window.

Alabama Klansmen had killed Viola Liuzzo's body, but it seemed a hateful nation was determined to kill her reputation and what was left of her family's spirit.

Including, Stanton charges in her just-published book, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI until 1972. In the car with the Klansmen who tailed Liuzzo's Oldsmobile was Gary Rowe, an FBI informant who had participated in KKK beatings of Freedom Riders and had been a member of the Klan group responsible for the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

When Hoover found out that Rowe was in the car, Stanton said in a telephone interview, "it was incumbent upon him to protect the FBI." His idea of protecting the bureau was to smear Liuzzo. Stanton obtained the bureau's file on Liuzzo through the Freedom of Information Act while she was researching her book. LTC Hoover had asked Detroit police to investigate Liuzzo and her husband, Jim.

"They took every piece of information about her life and slanted it to the negative," Stanton said. Detroit police gave their files to Selma police, who passed them on to the Klan, whose lawyers used the information to defend Collie Leroy Wilkins, the man charged with shooting Liuzzo. His trial ended in a hung jury.

Stanton wrote her book from a desire to "know what the real story was." The real Viola Liuzzo, Stanton discovered, was no "outside agitator" from the North who went south to meddle in its affairs, but a native of Georgia who went to Detroit in 1941 and befriended a black woman. The two became "like sisters," said the friend, Sarah Evans.

"From Selma to Sorrow" is a tribute to the only white woman to die in the civil rights movement. It is also a tale of how hatred led an ungrateful nation to brand her a whore rather than honor her as a heroine. Reading Stanton's book may give us joy that Liuzzo's heroism is finally being recognized. But it will also leave us with this sobering question: Can a nation filled with so much hatred in 1965 overcome it in a mere 30 years?

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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