Viola Liuzzo

Have you ever had an experience where someone told you something very simple and straightforward, and you just didn’t “get” what it was that they were telling you? At one point Jesus told his disciples straight up that he was going into Jerusalem where he would be betrayed, beaten, and killed, and that he would be raised on the third day. It was really that bluntly stated, but the disciples didn’t understand the meaning of what it was that he was telling them. Sometimes I can relate to that. Sometimes a truth can be right in front of me, but I don’t grasp the meaning of it. Why is that? Maybe it’s because it’s too hard for me to believe bad or painful things.


On our trip we learned about Viola Liuzzo. Viola was the only white woman who died in the cause of Civil Rights. She was from Michigan, and when she saw the news on television of the confrontation in Selma, she decided that she had to get involved. She went to Selma and participated in the successful march a couple weeks later. The day that the marchers arrived in Montgomery, she was serving as a driver to shuttle people back to Selma (54 miles away). She was on a return trip to Montgomery, with a 19-year-old black youth in the car with her when she was gunned down by four KKK members. We visited a memorial stone set up to mark the spot where she died.


Last night we watched a documentary video about Viola, and we surely did learn a lot. Or at least, we were exposed to a lot. I’m not sure how much of it actually sank in.


Here’s the story: within a day or two of this shooting, four men were arrested and charged. Why was it so easy for the authorities to find these men and accuse them? Well, one of them was an FBI informant. And, within a short time, “stories” began to circulate about Viola’s questionable character and moral failure. Evidence surfaced that made it appear that she was a hard-core drug user and had gone to Selma to participate in orgies with black men. Within a short time, the effect of her martyrdom on the Civil Rights Movement was diminished as people began to think that she “had it coming to her.” Where did these stories come from? According to the documentary, this was a smear campaign that originated with the FBI.


This is the sort of thing that is hard for me to grasp the meaning of. The idea of our own law enforcement elite being involved in a smear campaign to discredit this woman is very disturbing to me. Why would they do such a thing? The hypothesis is that they were trying to protect their informant, who people said should have prevented this shooting, since he was in the car with the other KKK members. In fact, two of those other KKK members have said that it was this informant who pulled the trigger. Again, this is just too awful to contemplate. I’m not saying it isn’t true; I’m just saying that I have a natural tendency to resist such a troubling and painful possibility.


I suspect that this was the reason Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand the simple thing he was telling them. It was simply too upsetting and too disturbing. They couldn’t comprehend such a thing happening to this man of peace and love.


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