Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Viola Liuzzo and the Call to Selma

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.

— 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 a young black man—Jimmie Lee Jackson—who had been killed a few weeks before during another peaceful protest. However, the earlier protest had been called off when the marchers were met by police officers who beat them and imprisoned many. Now the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a new march to the State capital to protest, and marchers planned to let nothing stop them.

Their numbers had grown past 20,000. Many people had seen the televised footage of Bloody Sunday, when the first march was brutally attacked. Many had heard the call from Rev. King for lovers of justice to come to Selma and join the march.

One who saw and heard was a white woman from Detroit, Michigan: Viola Liuzzo. Now she was in Selma to support the cause of civil rights. Her car was in Selma, too, being used to pick up the old and weak who had started the march, but could not finish. After the march, Viola helped drive supporters to the airport and bus and train stations for their journey home. But Viola herself did not go home.

Home for Viola was Detroit, but it had once been Pennsylvania, where she was born. Then Tennessee, and then Georgia. Her family had moved to where her father and mother could find work, which wasn't always easy. Viola's family had struggled. Yet as hard a time as her family had had, wherever they went, Viola could see that black people had a much harder time. Viola asked herself why some people had so much wealth and others 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 things would be better. After all, segregation by skin color happened in the Southern states, and Michigan was in the North.

However, in Michigan, Viola encountered segregation in a different form than she had seen before. She saw that, even when segregation was not enforced by law, white people and black people lived in two different worlds. She wondered why some people thought it impossible that white people and black people could be friends.

All that thinking helped Viola form 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 to better the educational system in Detroit. She worked for civil rights with the NAACP (National Association 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 First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit.

When Viola heard Rev. King's Call to Selma to bear witness to injustice and march on behalf of voting rights for all, she let nothing stop her from doing what she believed she had to do—go to Selma and support the march. Viola, who had five children, had many responsibilities at home. Even 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."

"I know," she replied.

"Viola, you might get killed," he said.

"I know," she answered.

Before anyone else could try to talk her out of it, Viola was in her station wagon and heading to Alabama.

She held hands with her brothers and sisters, crossed the bridge, and marched. She offered her car to be used as needed.

Late one night, Viola and a young African American man drove some marchers home in Viola's car. Another car, filled with men from the Klu Klux Klan, pulled up along Viola's car on a lonely stretch of road. The men shot Viola and killed her because she was a white woman trying to help black people claim their civil rights.

Viola's murder outraged many people. It followed the murder of the Rev. James Reeb and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and added to the public pressure on legislators in Washington, DC. Congress responded to the pressure and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Viola's dedication to her values, and her sacrifice, brought all of us a little bit closer to freedom. Further, the American Civil Rights movement has inspired oppressed people all over the world. Viola Liuzzo is the only white woman honored on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. A memorial plaque honoring Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and James Reeb hangs at the national offices of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, Massachusetts.