Remembering Viola Liuzzo

Keeping alive the story of a civil rights martyr laid to rest in Southfield

By: Jessica Strachan | Southfield Sun | Published January 23, 2013

 Mary Scharff, Barbara Talley and Robert Willis Jr. sing “Amazing Grace” during a memorial service for Viola Liuzzo at the civil right martyr’s crypt in Southfield Jan. 19.

Mary Scharff, Barbara Talley and Robert Willis Jr. sing “Amazing Grace” during a memorial service for Viola Liuzzo at the civil right martyr’s crypt in Southfield Jan. 19.

Photo by Sean Work

SOUTHFIELD — The scene was that of remembering a hero.

An intimate group of nearly 25 gathered in silence along rows of marble crypts inside Southfield’s mausoleum at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, some with misty eyes, others standing arm-in-arm.

Of the dozens of names to be remembered, eyes were fixed on one tomb: Viola Liuzzo’s, the only white woman to give her life in the struggle for American civil rights.

Below her tomb a candle flickered on the ground next to a vase of white roses. Hymnals were sung and the legacy shared of the woman who answered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to join the struggle.

“I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I wanted my mom. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t want to change a thing,” Sally Liuzzo Prado told attendees at her mother’s memorial service Jan. 19. Prado, the youngest of five, was just 6 years old when her mother was shot in the head by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in 1965. Memories are still vivid, she said. “I don’t have her courage, that’s for sure, but I have some things that she gave me, and I’m proud of that.”

One of those memories is her mother teaching her, “Sally, hate hurts the hater.” While she said justice wasn’t done in her mother’s death, she finds peace in knowing that her story is finally being shared.

“We’re here to celebrate the courage of a woman who was ahead of her time,” resident Robert Willis III said in the opening of Liuzzo’s memorial. Joan Richards, part of the local MLK Task Force that hosts the memorial, shared the story of Liuzzo’s final days, of March, 1965.

“The fight for civil rights continues. Rev. Martin Luther King organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the police killing of a young African-American following a voters’ rights demonstration,” Richards read, narrating what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, when 500-some peaceful protesters were attacked by Alabama state troopers.

Liuzzo, a 39-year-old Detroit resident married to a Teamster named Anthony, followed the news of what was happening in the South closely. Born in Pennsylvania and a high school dropout, she had gone on to enroll in college and become the top of her class in her pursuit to join the medical field.

Prado said it was early influences growing up that shaped her mother’s mentality.

“She noticed that black children were treated worse than her, even though she was poorer than a lot of them. She realized it was because of the color of her skin,” Prado explained.

In Detroit, Liuzzo had become close friends with a black woman named Sarah Evans. Seeing the blatant discrimination Evans faced, including having her Detroit home burned down by the KKK, also fueled Liuzzo’s passion to fight for equality.  

“They were inseparable,” Prado said. “Sarah begged her not to go (to Alabama). Her and my dad knew it was dangerous, but I really feel like Mom knew it was her destiny. She knew it was something she was put here to do.”

Liuzzo packed up some belongings in a brown paper bag and threw them in the back of her Oldsmobile the morning before she left for classes at Wayne State University. Prado said she knew if her mom had come home from class that day, the family wouldn’t have let her go.

Liuzzo was part of a group of students who planned to join the struggle in Alabama, though everyone backed out of the trip but her, Prado explained. Still, she called her husband to tell him of her decision and made the three-day journey alone.

“When she believed in something, there was no stopping her,” Prado said.

Once in Alabama on March 21, Liuzzo volunteered in a number of ways. March 25, the day she and marchers reached the Montgomery Capitol, was her last day.

As protesters headed home with the victory of a successful march, Liuzzo and a young black man taxied marchers back to Selma. A car with four white men followed Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile aggressively on the highway, eventually pulling next to her and peppering her car with gunshots.

Liuzzo died instantly, according to reports, and Leroy Molton, the passenger, feigned death to escape the KKK members.

Prado said she had just spoken with her mom that night. Liuzzo called the family, like she had each night she was away.

“I remember being so happy that I learned how to cursive write that day. She was really happy, too, and told me to write on a piece of paper and put it in on her dresser and she’d see it when she got home,” Prado said.

Prado added that the day felt normal, with her two brothers, ages 9 and 13, even getting scolded by their overprotective father for making light of the situation and chanting, “We shall overcome” in the living room.

“Dad got mad and told them, she’s still in danger. But mom was ecstatic; she was on top of the world.”

By midnight, Prado said, the call came in saying her mother had been killed.

At Liuzzo’s funeral, Prado said, people lined up outside to honor her mother. King and Jimmy Hoffa were among the notable attendees who marched with the casket chanting with Liuzzo for the last time, “We shall overcome.”

The four men in the car were eventually acquitted of murder in the heavily publicized trial, and the defendants were later charged with violating Liuzzo’s civil rights and were sentenced to 10 years. Prado said they only served seven years in prison, though none of the defendants lived to see the age of 60.

With charred crosses being left on the Liuzzo’s front lawn by KKK members and Anthony Liuzzo too saddened to live in the same house, the family moved to an apartment in Southfield in 1968, just two miles from the mausoleum where they had chosen to lay Liuzzo to rest.

“Dad wanted to put her somewhere safe. People probably would have desecrated her grave,” Prado said. “He would always say, ‘Mom is in a very special place where no one will ever be able to hurt her.’”

She found peace being within walking distance to the cemetery, though her dad never found something to comfort him, she said. Prado, who graduated from Southfield High School in 1977, lived with him until he died in 1978 and said “nothing was ever the same” for him.

Prado went on to have a son and twin girls, one whom carries Evans’ name, and she now lives in Novi. The rest of her siblings live across the country. She still visits her mother’s crypt often.

She said it’s been a long journey of forgiveness and, though only in its third year, the now-annual memorial in Southfield is enough to give her a deep sense of gratitude for keeping her mother’s legacy alive.

“There is nothing that’s more important to us than that people don’t forget her and what kind of heart she had,” she said. “We want people to know the real Viola Liuzzo.”