March 7 marked the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day Alabama State troopers beat peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while they were marching from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. A few months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among the thousands gathered in Selma this weekend to commemorate the anniversary was Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe.
Back in 1965, the images of the brutal violence against peaceful men, women and children were broadcast around the country and around the world. Viewers were outraged. One woman who was watching that night from her home in Detroit was 39-year-old Viola Liuzzo, Mary’s mother.
This weekend in Selma, Mary described her mother’s reaction as she watched television that evening with her husband and five children. Viola Liuzzo was so outraged by the injustice and the violence that she decided to act. She answered the call sent out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to come to Selma to join the effort, driving alone in her Oldsmobile to Alabama. When a federal court ordered that the march would be permitted two weeks later, Viola Liuzzo volunteered to assist with coordination and logistics. The march from Selma to Montgomery took four days, culminating with Dr. King’s rousing speech on the steps of the state capitol. Mary recalled that her mother called home that night at about 8:00 p.m. to describe the exhilaration of the day. Mary’s younger brothers marched around their Detroit living room, pretending to carry protest signs.
Later that night, the phone rang again. This time, the news was not joyful. Mary’s father was told that as Viola was driving a 19-year-old black male volunteer back to Selma that evening, another car pulled up alongside her Oldsmobile and Viola was fatally shot in the head. Three men were later convicted at a federal trial.
The deaths of so many martyrs of the civil rights movement are tragic and inspiring. As Viola Liuzzo understood, the fight for equality is not a black issue or a white issue, it is an American issue. As we move toward a more perfect union, all of us must work to address injustice wherever we see it. Today’s battles include marriage equality, bias and discrimination against Muslim and Arabs Americans, access for the disabled, and, still, voting rights, among others. It is easy to overlook the fights that benefit people in other groups. But all of us have a stake in assuring that we achieve our nation’s goal of equal justice under law.
Mary said that she is often asked why her mother, a white woman from Detroit, would go all the way to Selma, Alabama, to fight for the right to vote for black citizens. She said that her response is why didn’t everyone go?
Barbara L. McQuade
United States Attorney
Eastern District of Michigan