In the March of 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a stay at home mother of 5 children, heard Dr. King’s call to unite against the forces of hate and division in the south. She up and drove from Detroit to Selma to participate in civil disobedience. She drove to march—from Selma to Montgomery. She was moved by the stories and images of “Bloody Sunday” when citizens were beaten by the police for trying to cross the Edmunds Petty’s Bridge in a non-violent protest march to promote voting rights and end racial segregation and violence. Senator John Lewis of Georgia, then a teenager, was beaten by police on “Bloody Sunday.” He was struck in the head twice by a police baton.
Many days were bloody in the south that year. People of all races and religions were struck down by violent white supremacists who wanted the South to stay racist, segregated-to keep people of color down. Fewer than 1 percent of lynchings and racist violent acts were prosecuted after the year 1900. Viola drove right into a storm of racist violence. Maybe she thought she was safe as a white woman? She would have been very wrong. This we all know now.
Viola left her family behind and drove south 800 miles to be a part of something important. She knew it. She knew she could make a difference by showing up. She was an religious activist. She was moved by the work of Unitarian ministers who were putting life and limb on the line to protest racism. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference tasked Viola with transporting protestors and aid using her 1963 Oldsmobile. All she had was a car and a desire to help. And off she went.
Viola heard the call and responded. I can relate. Last month I was offered the opportunity to drop everything and fly, and then drive solo, to our border with Mexico. There I was able to witness the maltreatment and systematic abuse of refugees attempting to find sanctuary in this country. And I was also able deliver aid to these refugees thanks to the outpouring of generosity by friends, family and strangers in the Seattle area. I too left my kids behind so that I could stand up and bare witness for the children and their parents-people whose lives are very far from my own. In the words of Anne of Green Gables in the new Netflix series-I find Viola to be my “kindred spirit”. A woman of my own passions.
Viola was a community organizer and active member of her Unitarian community. She grew up very poor in the south and as a young adult moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan (where we just spent time with family at the start of our trip) and began a new chapter of her life in the north. This was the place where her ideas, her intellect and her spirit could expand and soar.
Viola was on her second marriage, the mother of 5 children and was in charge of maintaining her household. She was also a part-time college student. She homeschooled her kids, which was not legal at the time, for 2 months in protest of racist educational policies of the Detroit school district. She was arrested for homeschooling her children. She did not waver in her commitment. She walked the talk. She lived her theology. She pushed back against the forces of hate. I understand her need to push back. It is in me too.
I do not know much about her life but I know about the lives of women in this country. I can tell you this-she worked to serve others, to care for and ensure the health, vitality and comfort of those she loved. And she was able to extend this love and care towards people living hundreds of miles away. She was willing to drop it all and heed the call for justice and righteousness.
I imagine Viola was a bit nervous taking this journey to Selma. I know I was nervous when I headed south to McAllen, Texas. In addition to making sure the needs of my family were covered while I was gone, I was also a bit scared to travel so far away from my family alone. I have a smart phone. She did not. I could call my family from the car for a check in, just to say hello. She was alone in her travels in a way I will never know.
My kindred spirit went down to Selma but she did not return to her family. She was not able to call 911 from her car when she noticed men following her as she drove a fellow protester home after the march. She was on the road between Selma and Montgomery when Klan members drove up along side her car and shot her in the face, killing her immediately. The witness, a young African American man she was driving home who played dead to save his life, said she looked the men straight in the eyes right before she was shot. She was 39 years old.
One of the 4 men in car was a FBI informant. He testified against the other men in exchange for witness protection. Later the FBI, under the leadership of Hoover, leaked vicious rumors about Viola. This too is something to which I can relate. Viola, posthumously, was called a communist, heroine addict and was accused of having abandoned her children in Detroit so she could go fornicate with black men in Selma. All lies. All told to discredit her. To discount her life and sacrifice because she stood up for justice and aided in creating powerful change in our society. She marched along with the group of 25,000 protestors who went to the Alabama state house with the Confederate flag flying high atop it to demand justice. She stood in solidarity. She stood up to bigotry. She laid her life on the line for equality in this country.
Today we are staring the legacy of white supremacy right in its ugly ugly face. They are not hiding out anymore. That is the lesson of Charlottesville. They do not even trying to keep their faces hidden anymore.
Today we do not have a Dr. King calling us to action. This time we will need to hear the call from within. The still small voice. It is calling: Leave the comfort of your homes and get out into the streets. Over the course of this trip across country I have come to understand within myself that I am called to civil disobedience. Like Viola, I will not obey the demands of the white man to stand down, to keep silent or disappear. As a white Jewish woman I could hide easily hide in the comfort of my middle class existence. No one would blame me for prioritized my family above all. But I know that is not the right thing to do. Now is the time to be uncomfortable. To stand up and speak up and risk my own comfort for those in this country who do not have the option.
If we are going to finally achieve full equality in our society, for all people, more moms and dads are going to need to leave their children at home and get out into the streets. We will all need to take risks in order to create change. We will all need to travel to unknown places. We have a dark and uncharted road ahead of us. But we too are able to look the racists in the face and show them that we will no longer live in fear. We are free to disobey the white man and disobey we will.