Friday, March 25, 2016

Poem by Terri Kirby Erickson: On March 25, 1965 NAACP Member Viola Gregg Liuzzao was murdered by Klansmen . . .

Christal Rice Cooper

This was originally published on February 6, 2014 in the Winston-Salem Journal

Copyright granted by Terri Kirby Erickson

Guest Blogger Terri Kirby Erickson:
on her poem “Leroy and Viola”
and the history behind it.

From the moment I read John Railey’s column last year about people martyred during the struggle for civil rights, I was intrigued as well as outraged by a brief reference to 19-year-old African-American civil rights worker, Leroy Moton, and Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a white, middle-aged housewife and mother from Detroit.

There are uplifting stories from this tumultuous period in our nation's history, but mostly darker tales — the kind that will haunt us forever. This story, I'm afraid, is one of them. It begins with the everyday image of two people driving down a long stretch of highway, listening to the radio. It ends, for one of them, with sudden and devastating violence.

         On the evening of March 25, 1965, after a march in Montgomery, Ala., Liuzzo — a proud member of the NAACP — was giving Moton a ride back to Selma.

At some point in their journey, armed Klansmen spied this lone white woman driving a car with Michigan plates and her black male passenger. They were so enraged by this "outsider" and the appearance of "race mixing," they began to give chase. By some accounts, both cars were soon traveling at speeds of 100 miles per hour.

When the gunmen were able to get close enough to Liuzzo's vehicle, they shot her twice in the head. The car careened into a ditch and Moton, covered in Liuzzo's blood, pretended to be dead — the only reason this young man survived to tell the world what happened.

It is hard to imagine the terror he must have felt when that quartet of killers gathered around the wreckage, searching for survivors. For Leroy Moton to "play dead" so convincingly (beside the bloody corpse of a woman who had been vibrantly alive only seconds before), is a testimony to his survival skills, not to mention the bravery already evidenced by the choice he made to march for civil rights in the segregated South.

Eventually, three of Viola Liuzzo's murderers were brought to trial. In the Encyclopedia of Alabama (published October 24, 2007), the author writes that the Klansmen were acquitted the first time around, after rumor and innuendo did their work to destroy Liuzzo's reputation. Some even hinted that Liuzzo and Moton had a romantic relationship — damaging not only because Liuzzo was a married woman and the mother of five children, but because it was still illegal in many parts of the country, including Alabama, for whites and non-whites to cohabitate or engage in sexual acts.

As it turned out, the fourth man involved in the shooting was a "paid FBI informant" and the charges against him were dropped. There were subsequent trials, according to the EOA, wherein "Alabama juries" continued to "clear" the Klansmen. Federal juries finally convicted them of "violating Liuzzo's civil rights," and "sentenced the men to ten years in prison." One "died in March, 1966, before beginning his sentence," and "the FBI informant was granted full immunity and placed in the federal witness protection program."

There is speculation that the FBI, under orders from Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover, was responsible for the smear campaign against Viola Liuzzo. Some even say it was the FBI informant who pulled the trigger. But this fact is indisputable: Viola Liuzzo and far too many others, black and white, made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for equal rights.

Liuzzo's murder did, however, "move President Johnson to order a federal investigation of the Klan, and to petition Congress to expand the Federal Conspiracy Act of 1870 to make the murder of civil rights activists a federal crime. Her death increased congressional support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed on August 6, 1965."

The EOA goes on to say that "in 1989, Viola Liuzzo became one of forty civil-rights martyrs whose lives were commemorated on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. In 1991, the Women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference erected a stone marker on Highway 80 at the spot where she was murdered."

As for Leroy Moton, he is still with us. I have had the privilege of corresponding with him on a few occasions, and was able to tell him how much I respect and admire him. Both he and the late Viola Liuzzo, as well as scores of other champions for civil rights, are an inspiration.

It is important to continue sharing their stories, and to honor these brave men and women who sacrificed so much in pursuit of justice for all.

Leroy and Viola

Come Saturday morning, poor black men
gathered on street corners, waiting for white
men in Cadillacs to drive by slow, shouting
hey boy from their rolled-down windows, get
in, which meant there was a job digging ditches
or other backbreaking work for less money
than it cost to feed the family dog. Nights
were harder, what with hooded gangs of racists
wrapped in bed sheets roaming the countryside,
and woe to anybody who wasn’t white once
those half-drunk, hatemongering mobs with
their burning crosses and lengths of rope,
arrived on the scene. So in 1965 when married
mother-of-five Viola Gregg Liuzzo volunteered
to drive nineteen-year-old Leroy Moton back
to Selma—both fresh from a freedom march
in Montgomery, Alabama—the sight of a white
woman with a black man in the front seat of
a vehicle sporting Michigan plates didn’t sit
well with Klansmen who were, as usual, wild
as pent-up ponies in a barn blaze. So they chased
the pair down and fired two bullets into Liuzzo’s
brain, laughing like loons when the car careened
into a ditch. Covered in blood, Moton played
dead—surviving the shots, the crash, and the killers’
swift perusal of the wreckage. But Viola Liuzzo
is gone except in memory, where the same reel
runs over and over in Leroy Moton’s mind:
a pretty woman’s profile, pale as milk against
the purpling sky, and his hand, dark as rivers
on the radio dial—strangers joined forever
by history, seconds before the slaughter.

Excerpt from A Lake of Light and Clouds

Press 53
© Terri Kirby Erickson 2014

Terri Kirby Erickson  is the author of four collections of poetry, including In the Palms of Angels (Press 53, 2011), winner of three international awards, and her latest collection, A Lake of Light and Clouds (Press 53, 2014). Telling Tales of Dusk (Press 53, 2009) was #23 on the Poetry Foundation Contemporary Best Seller List in 2010.  Her work has won numerous awards, and has appeared in the 2013 Poet’s Market, The Christian Science Monitor, North Carolina Literary Review, Storysouth, JAMA, Verse Daily, and many other publications, and has twice been chosen by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser for inclusion in his American Life in Poetry column, sponsored by The Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress. She is a member of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, a professional organization of women educators, and has taught a number of poetry classes in public schools, universities, and other venues. 

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