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The Civil Rights Activist Murdered by the Ku Klux Klan Whose Story Was Nearly Lost to History

The Detroit mother of five answered Dr. King's call for volunteers and traveled to Alabama to help during the Selma March.

On the final day of the historic Selma to Montgomery March on March 25, 1965, civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was helping shuttle marchers from Montgomery, Alabama back to Selma in her car, along with a fellow activist, 19-year-old Leroy Moton. When she stopped at a red light, a car filled with local Ku Klux Klan members pulled up alongside them. When they saw Liuzzo, a white woman, and Moton, a black man, together, they followed them, pulled a gun, and shot directly at Liuzzo. She was killed by a bullet to the head; Moton, who was covered in her blood and knocked unconscious, was assumed to to be dead by the Klan members who investigated the crashed vehicle. The murder of the 39-year-old Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife and mother of five, shocked millions of people around the country and, along with the outrage at the violent treatment of many of the Selma protesters, helped to spur the signing of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later.

Liuzzo, who had grown up in deep poverty in Tennessee, was already an active member of the Detroit NAACP when she saw television footage of the beating of hundreds of civil rights activists by the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the first attempted march to Selma on March 7, 1965. Horrified by "Bloody Sunday," she decided to heed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for volunteers to come to Selma to help in the struggle. Her husband was opposed to her plan, telling her that civil rights "isn't your fight;" she responded that "it's everybody's fight" and drove to Selma to volunteer during the four-day march from Montgomery to Selma. Liuzzo, who called her family nightly with updates, was thrilled by the march's success and to be contributing to what she considered the most important fight of her time.

After her death, many prominent civil rights leaders, including King, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins, attended Liuzzo's funeral in Detroit to pay their respects. The four Klan members were quickly arrested; one of the men was a paid informant for the FBI and protected from prosecution, the other three were found guilty in a federal trial and sentenced to ten years in prison. In an attempt to obscure the fact that an informant was in the car, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began a smear campaign to the press directed at Liuzzo, including allegations that she was a drug addict and that she was having an affair with Moton. Hoover and the FBI's role in the smear campaign was uncovered in 1978 when her children obtained FBI case documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Liuzzo's death, the subsequent smear campaign, and the legal fight to uncover the truth are explored in depth in two books: Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions and From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo.

While her story was largely forgotten for many years, Liuzzo's commitment and sacrifice for the pursuit of civil rights has recently received more recognition. In 2017, she was posthumously awarded the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, an award named in honor of the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which recognizes outstanding individuals who contributed to civil and human rights. And, while the lost of their mother was devastating to her children, they are deeply proud of how she lived her life and the legacy she left. Her now 70-year-old daughter Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe says that when they obtained her mother's journal from the FBI, she saw Liuzzo had written "I can’t sit back and watch my people suffer." To Lilleboe, that passage sums up what drove her mother, a devoted Unitarian Universalist, to take action: “She actually believed it when Christ said that the suffering and needy are our people. Mom saw all other human beings as her people.”

Books and Films About Civil Rights Heroes

Child of the Civil Rights Movement

Child of the Civil Rights Movement

Written by: Paula Young Shelton
Illustrated by: Raul Colon
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Paula Young Shelton, the daughter of Civil Rights activist Andrew Young, grew up in a world where everyone she knew was dedicated to the fight for equality. Even children knew the injustice of segregation — she recalls crying loudly when owners of a restaurant refused to seat her family in "my very first protest, my own little sit-in." And as she grew, her understanding of her father's cause grew, until it became her own and she too marched from Selma to Montgomery. In this unique child's eye view of the Civil Rights struggle, Shelton balances honesty about the struggles her father and his friends faced with the sense of hope that drove them forward.

She Stood For Freedom

The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

She Stood For Freedom

The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

Recommended Age: 6 - 9

By the time she was 19, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland had been arrested more than once for her work to support the Civil Rights Movement. As one of the Freedom Riders, she was jailed in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. During the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins in Jackson, Mississippi, Mulholland was the first white person to join the protest. And when Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington and Selma voting rights marches, Mulholland was there too. This picture book biography sheds light on a little known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, who to this day urges people to take their place as allies for justice.

Glory Be

Glory Be

Written by: Augusta Scattergood
Recommended Age: 8 and up

Glory has always looked forward to celebrating her July 4th birthday at the community pool. But in 1964, the summer she turns 12, that proves to be complicated. The town is in an uproar: Yankee "freedom people" are insisting that the pool be desegregated, and in response, the town has closed the pool "for repairs" indefinitely. As the conflict continues, and Glory comes of age, she begins to look beyond her own situation and see the closure of the pool in the context of the broader world. This memorable story captures the thoughts and feelings of a girl caught on the cusp of adulthood and facing true injustice she had never noticed before.

Night on Fire

Night on Fire

Written by: Ronald Kidd
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Billie Simms may only be 13, but she is already determined to see an end to segregation in her hometown of Anniston, Alabama — even if few people agree with her. When she hears that the Freedom Riders will pass through Anniston, Billie hopes that the town will see the justice in their cause; instead, they show the depths of their racism and prejudice. The Freedom Riders will resume their ride to Montgomery and Billie is now faced with a choice: stand idly by in silence or take a stand for what she believes in.

The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little Rock

Written by: Kristin Levine
Recommended Age: 10 - 13

It's 1958, and twelve-year-old Marlee struggles at school, shy to the point of silence outside of her own family... until she meets Liz, the new girl. Fearless and determined, Liz knows just what to say to quiet the resident mean girl and to encourage Marlee to find her voice. Then, one day, Liz is gone; rumor has it that she was only passing as white. But Marlee decides that she doesn't care: Liz is her best friend, and Marlee will do anything — even face the danger that comes with standing up against segregation — to have her friend back by her side. Heartfelt and satisfying, this story of friendship and the fight for justice will make young readers cheer.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March

Written by: Lynda Blackmon Lowery
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Lynda Lowery was the youngest marcher in the 1965 Selma protest, but her youth never protected her; she had been arrested eleven times, and sent to jail nine times, before her fifteenth birthday. This gripping memoir captures the experience of being a teenage protester in Selma, from the constant threats of violence to the inhumane "sweatbox" steel cell where she and twenty other girls were imprisoned until they all passed out. And yet, Lowery's memoir is one of home and optimism: while she doesn't shy away from the realities of what protesters faced, she highlights that she suffered these ordeals in order to change American history for the better.

From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo

From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo

Written by: Mary Stanton
Recommended Age: Adults

Viola Liuzzo had a passion for justice and believed deeply that the Civil Rights battle was everyone's fight. That's how a Detroit mother of five ended up in Alabama, shuttling marchers back home after the Selma Freedom March — and how she ended up dead, shot in the head by members of the Ku Klux Klan. But the injustices against Liuzzo didn't end there: because the group of Klansmen included an FBI informant, a smear campaign organized by J. Edgar Hoover branded Liuzzo as unstable, claimed she had abandoned her family, and even alleged that she was a drug addict. In this full-length biography of Liuzzo, author Mary Stanton draws on public records and FBI case files to the tell truth about this quietly heroic woman's life and death.

Written by: James P. Turner
Recommended Age: Adults

When Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as she shuttled marchers from the Selma to Montgomery Freedom March, the brutal killing shocked the nation — and in combination with the police beatings of "Bloody Sunday," public opinion turned toward the protesters. But justice for Liuzzo was not quick or easy. Even though an FBI informant was in the car with the killers, two state juries — with all white members — refused to convict them. James P. Turner, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, provides an insider's look at the three trials and the courageous Civil Rights Division lawyers who ensured the Klansmen knew the force of law. This powerful look at the aftermath of Liuzzo's death includes links to explore court documents and memoranda.

Price: $15.95

Selma, Lord, Selma

Selma, Lord, Selma

Recommended Age: 9 and up

Sheyann Webb is a 12 year old girl in Selma, Alabama, whose life is changed when she hears Dr. Martin Luther King speak. She vows to do whatever she can to support Dr. King and his cause, and to resist the racism and degradation she now sees all around her. But as the historic march from Selma to Montgomery approaches, and the threats of violence increase, Sheyann has to decide if she dares to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the others in the march. This inspiring film captures the fear and danger that civil rights supporters faces, without becoming too graphic for younger Mighty Girls. The film was inspired by the true story of Sheyann Webb and her friend, Rachel West. You can find their story as told to Frank Sikora in the book Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days for age 13 and up.

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