L-R; Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, Viola liuzzo.
An interview with Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, daughter of Civil Right’s martyr, Viola Liuzzo.
By Kelli Green
In January the world shook with the voices of thousands of women from across all seven continents, in the largest protest in the history of our country. Among them were a group of marchers in Washington who carried a sign dedicated to the memory Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman to be murdered during the civil rights movement.
Her daughter, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe saw a connection between the marches of her mother’s era and the current movements. The need to be heard and the desire to right what is wrong despite personal risk is ultimately the same drive that sent her mother and protesters like her to Selma.
“Mom broke the rules, and there were a whole lot of women that helped break down the barriers.” It is sometimes overlooked that women were the strong backbone of the civil-rights movement.
Viola Liuzzo was a 39-year-old mother of five who lived in Detroit but grew up very poor in the Lookout Mountain area of Tennessee. Liuzzo had always been passionate about helping those in need. In 1943 at the age of 18, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), not long after moving north to Michigan.
In 1965, after seeing the police and segregationists brutally attack marchers in Selma on what became known as Bloody Sunday, Liuzzo traveled to Selma, Alabama, to help with the movement and the march. “The ability to interfere with suffering was top priority,” says Lilleboe.
On March 21, 1965, thousands of marchers gathered at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church to begin the third attempt at marching from Selma to Montgomery. They were marching to protest the blocking and intimidation faced by black voters. The efforts and the marches in Selma led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act, but unfortunately, Liuzzo did not get a chance to see that.
On March 25th, after successfully completing the march and listening to Dr. King deliver his famous, “How Long, Not Long.” speech, Liuzzo helped to transport marchers from Montgomery back to Selma. Liuzzo was driving with another volunteer, Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old black man. While traveling on Highway 80, Liuzzo and Moton were spotted by members of the Klu Klux Klan who proceeded to run them down and shoot into her car. Moton survived the attack uninjured, but Liuzzo was killed. Only three of the men involved in the murder went to trial. Gary Thomas Rowe, an FBI agent was given immunity from prosecution.The three men that went to trial were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury.
Lilleboe recalls being introduced to an unprecedented amount of hatred as a teenager after the death of her mother. They received so much mail, much of it hate mail, that the mailman had to deliver it in large postal bags. “After a day or two, they stopped delivering the mail. My dad was with the Teamsters, and the Teamsters would take the mail and sort through it before they gave it to us,” but by that time the damage was already done. The family received things like newspapers with gruesome crime scene photographs from Liuzzo’s death.
Lilleboe says her mother used to tell her, “Hate hurts the hater, not the hated.” She says she can understand how it’s easy to feel like you want to retaliate, but it’s a trap. “We can’t become distraught because there are people out there waiting to prey on vulnerable people. We have to love each other and support each other and help each other not to fall for that. We can’t give into that type of aggression…as Dr. King once said, ‘In the end, it is not the voices of our enemies that we remember, but the silence of our friends.’”
For the last 13 or 14 years Lilleboe has gone to Selma every year for the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, sometimes speaking at Brown Chapel A.M.E. She says she goes back to Selma as often as she can because it is where she feels closest to her mother. “People there would part the waters for me if they could for the simple reason that I’m my mother’s daughter.”
However, for Lilleboe, being linked to her mother doesn’t always bring praise. “People used to tell us all the time that our mother didn’t love us, and that’s why she’d left us,” says Lilleboe. After her mother’s death, she realized that there were people who would hate her for no other reason than the fact that her mother was a white woman who fought with the Civil Right’s Movement. She realized something else as well: if she wanted to she could sit in a room and never tell anyone who she was, and she wouldn’t have to face that type of hatred.
The ability to blend in is not a privilege that black people have. Lilleboe believes that understanding privilege is important to understand when it comes to the progression of society. When it comes to the topic of white privilege, Lilleboe said: “It isn’t what they think; it’s what they never have to think.”
For instance, as a white woman, Lilleboe has never interviewed for a job, not been hired, and wondered if it was because of her race. She’s not concerned about her teenage grandson hanging out and being randomly accused of a crime or being in the wrong neighborhood, like Trayvon Martin.
Lilleboe had a friend who asked to do a story with her. This friend was a black female attorney in Washington D.C., and the piece was about racial tension and how black lives didn’t matter in the 50’s. When sent a portion of the article, Lilleboe asked if the friend had said all she wanted to say. When the friend agreed that she had said her piece, Lilleboe went ahead with her portion, however, she was a little harsher on the subject matter.
When she sent her part back to her friend she thanked her. “She said, ‘Oh Mary I’m so glad you said that because now I can print it, but if I had said it myself, I would’ve been accused of being another “angry black woman”’ Here’s a woman at the top of her game, a top attorney, and she couldn’t say what she really thinks. Well, she can say it, but the chances of it being received as something other than the truth, are huge, and that’s something you never think about.”
Lilleboe says that there are people that just don’t understand what the issue is, or what people are complaining about, which can make it hard to communicate. “First off people get comfortable, second people don’t believe there’s a problem.”Many people shut down when they hear people talking about issues within society and they refuse to deal with it, but we can’t let frustration stop us from moving. She Believes people need to get out of their comfort zones and address the issues.
“In the 60’s nobody changed anybody’s mind. [Though] some people did change, but it wasn’t like we eliminated the hatred. What happened was people started getting prosecuted for their crimes against certain people.” The activism and protests lead to an increased involvement in how people were represented, which changed how issues were handled. Lilleboe believes one way to make progress is to stay active in the voting scene, especially at the local level. “Those officials are the people who will be in positions to either make things better or worse…We have to know who’s up for these positions, who they are and how they think.” says Lilleboe.Lilleboe also feels that it is important for movements like Black Lives Matter and other organizations to come together. “The voice has to be big, like it was a couple of weeks ago. We can’t have Black Lives Matter marching here, and another cause marching there. It’s fine to have particular causes, but we must combine our voices. Because if people can ignore it, they will ignore.”
“Nonviolence is absolutely the way, or we’ll end up losing a lot of people,” Lilleboe says. Lilleboe herself has gone through nonviolence training. She feels that one thing the younger people don’t realize is that the nonviolent movement is actually very aggressive and complex. She suggests that maybe the concept of “nonviolence” could be verbalized in a new way where young people didn’t see it as cowardly.
If there is anything Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe hopes people learn from her mother, it would be that “Nothing should be more important in our lives than the concern for others. Injustice for one is injustice for all.”
Even though there is a huge amount of conflict going on right now, Lilleboe is hopeful and positive about the future. “We cannot let how far we have to go diminish how far we’ve come,” Lilleboe says. She believes our country is heading for the next huge leap forward, but it is going to take work from everyone.
Photos Courtesy of Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe
For more on Viola Liuzzo’s life and legacy, and the civil right’s movement (both past and present) please visit the following facebook pages:
Viola Liuzzo Civil Right’s Martyr: https://www.facebook.com/ViolaLiuzzoCivilRightsMartyr/
Viola.Liuzzo: Holding the Hands of History https://www.facebook.com/Viola.Liuzzo/
You can also check out the previously written article about Viola Liuzzo on our site: http://ecorsair.com/viola-liuzzo-civil-rights-activist-courageous-woman-incredible-inspiration/