Viola Liuzzo: To Freedom Land
Adapted from a story by Jessica York. The song is an African American spiritual.
This story is best told in pairs. One volunteer sings the song at the beginning and later in the story, while the other volunteer narrates the story. The song lyrics are in quotes at the beginning, and in parentheses at the end of sentences later in the story.
"Ain't gonna let nobody
Turn me 'round
Turn me 'round
Turn me 'round
Ain't gonna let nobody
Turn me 'round
Gonna keep on a-walkin'
keep on a-talkin'
Walking up to freedom land" — words of an African American spiritual
The protesters sang and chanted on the 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Black people of Selma had tried to march earlier in the month to demonstrate for African American voting rights and in remembrance of Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young Black man who had been killed a few weeks before during another peaceful protest. However, the earlier protest was called off when the marchers were met by police officers who beat them and imprisoned many. Now the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a new protest march to the State Capitol and marchers planned to let nothing stop them. Among these marchers were hundreds of Unitarian Universalists.
The marchers' numbers had grown by over 20,000. Many people saw the televised coverage of Bloody Sunday, when the first march was brutally attacked. Many had heard the call from Reverend King for lovers of justice to come to Selma and join the march. One of the many who saw and heard was Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white woman. She went to Selma to support the cause of civil rights. Her car was in Selma, too, being used to pick up the old and weak who started the march, but could not finish. After the march, she helped carpool supporters to the airport, bus, and train stations for their journey home. But Viola herself would not be going home.
Home for Viola was Detroit, Michigan. Once, it had been Pennsylvania, where she was born. Then Tennessee and then Georgia. Her family moved to where her father and mother could find work, which wasn't always easy. Viola's family struggled. Yet as hard a time as her family had, Viola could see that the Black people in Tennessee and Georgia had a much harder time. Viola asked herself questions about why some people had so much wealth and others had so little. She wondered what the color of a person's skin had to do with whether they would be a hard worker or a good student. When her family moved to Michigan, she thought it would be better there.
However, in Michigan, she encountered segregation like she had never seen before. She saw how White people and Black people lived in two different worlds and she wondered why people thought she couldn't be friends with Black people.
All that thinking helped Viola shape firm opinions about what is right, wrong, and fair. Once she made her mind up, nobody was going to turn her around!
So she worked for economic justice and education reform in Detroit. She worked for civil rights with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) alongside her Black friends. When she did not see her beliefs and values reflected in the Catholic Church she attended, she left and joined the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit.
When Viola saw what was happening in Selma and heard Reverend King's call, nothing was going to stop her from doing what she believed she had to do: to go down to Selma and support the march. As a mother of five children, Viola had many responsibilities at home. So once she made up her mind to go, she called her husband and told him her plans. He was worried.
"Viola, it might be dangerous." (Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round)
"I know, ------" she replied.(Turn me round)
"Viola, you might get killed", he said. (Turn me round)
"I know", she answered. (Turn me round)
Before anyone else could try and talk her out of it, Viola was in her station wagon and heading to Alabama.
She held hands with Black people and White people, crossed the bridge and marched three-strong. (I'm gonna keep on a walking)
She offered her car to be used as needed. (I'm gonna keep on a talking)
Later that night after the march was finished, Viola was helping marchers get home. As she and Leroy Moton, a Black civil rights worker, drove along Highway 80, a car full of white supremacist men from the Ku Klux Klan began following and threatening her. She became frustrated, and started singing freedom songs at the top of her lungs. Twenty miles later, the men were still on her tail, and along a lonely stretch of road they pulled up next to her car and shot her. They shot Viola and killed her because she was a white woman trying to help Black people claim their civil rights. (Walking up to freedom land)
They thought this would stop the Civil Rights Movement, but like a mighty tide, it kept on rolling toward freedom. Many people were outraged by Viola's murder and put more pressure on their legislators in Washington, DC to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Viola's dedication to her values and sacrifice helped ALL people get a little closer to freedom land, as the American Civil Rights Movement has been an inspiration for oppressed people all over the world. She is the only White woman honored on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama and a plaque in her honor hangs at the national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, Massachusetts.