When I picked up the book From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo by Mary Stanton I did not know Viola Liuzzo. As I began the book I had these thoughts that seemed to be common among Americans at the time of her death – “How could she have left her five children in Detroit to go down to Alabama for a civil rights march? She must have been a bad mother”; “As a white woman, how could she have allowed herself to be in a car with a young, black man in the deep South? She must have been naïve about the Southern way of life”; and “Why was she so impulsive? She must have been mentally ill.” I am thankful that Stanton took the time and made the effort to write this book because she confronted these thoughts and showed me a life – an ordinary white life who made an extraordinary choice to speak up for civil rights for black people and do something with her words by marching for voting rights in one of the most dangerous places at one of the most dangerous times in the civil rights movement.
I am disturbed by the way the FBI tried to destroy the reputation of Liuzzo in order to protect itself. I understand the importance of the FBI and the importance of informants who help the FBI investigate organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, especially in this time when Americans are so concerned about security and having our lifestyles protected. Was one person’s life worth the institution? What is the difference between choosing to give your life for the greater good and having your life taken for the greater good?
As I was working my way through this book I was thinking about some words that I remembered from one of MLK’s speeches, words that spoke about all of the white people in America who were silent and inactive in the midst of the oppression of black people. Stanton begins chapter 5 with those words –
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Later in that chapter Stanton quotes Judge Frank Johnson, a federal judge in Montgomery, Alabama, who went to law school with George Wallace but who was considered a champion of the civil rights movement –
The biggest problem was white folks not doing anything. The large majority of white people were not active in opposing the rights of the blacks. Their inactivity allowed those that were willing to be active in opposing to be more effective.
This book opened a window for me into the life of a white person who chose to speak and to act for the rights of black people. I think Viola Liuzzo was a remarkable person. Her choice to “do something” in the civil rights movement was extraordinary because 1) She knew that the “southern way of life” was imbued into the hearts and minds of most white southerners and that most white southerners would fight to the bitter end to protect that way of life; 2) She was 39 years old and had enough life experience to know that struggling for social change required sacrifice as well as idealistic words; 3) She was a mother and left her children to answer MLK’s call for help in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965 (I find this extraordinary because I have two children and know their places in my heart – I am sure her five children had similar places in her heart); and 4) She was a woman and women were supposed to “stay in their places” as homemakers. She was remarkable because in the light of these four points about her life she chose to march from Selma to Montgomery in solidarity with black people who were marching for their civil rights.
I also think Viola Liuzzo was an ordinary person. It is important to reflect on this point because there is a tendency to think that only extraordinary people can change societies for the better. She was an ordinary middle class person in Detroit, MI before she left for Alabama and the civil rights march. The life that she lived with her husband and children was a bit eccentric but was not really noteworthy. She was an ordinary person who made an extraordinary choice for justice. As I reflect on her extraordinary choice I remember a quote from a German pastor named Martin Niemoller who struggled against Nazism –
In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
The world is a better place today than it was 40 some years ago because Viola Liuzzo spoke up.
The consequences of Liuzzo’s choice to “do something” and to “speak out” for civil rights were devastating to her and her family. She was called a whore, a bad mother, and a mentally ill person. This reminded me of some words from the Sermon on the Mount –
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
She was insulted and persecuted. People from the Ku Klux Klan to the FBI said all kinds of evil against her. This happened to her because she was a prophet. She was an answer to MLK’s “appalling silence of the good people,” to Judge Frank Johnson’s “white folks not doing anything,” and Niemoller’s silence. Are the consequences of her choice the reason why more ordinary white people did not do anything and speak out for civil rights? I wonder. Her life speaks to me today. What are the issues today that cry out for words and actions? Are they issues that cry out for ordinary me to be prophetic? Are they issues that bring insults and persecutions with them? Am I willing to “do something” and to “speak out” on these issues regardless of insults and persecution? Am I willing to “do something” and to “speak out” even if it places my family at risk? I wonder.
As we discussed Viola Liuzzo as a class, I was surprised that some students still saw her as she was portrayed in the aftermath of her murder – as a woman who was at best crazy and at worst a bad person. I did agree with a comment that Grace made, a declaration that it takes people who are not normal to stand up against an unjust society and struggle against it. I do agree that Liuzzo was eccentric but I really think she was an example who more white people should have followed. If they had then I think MLK would not have had to speak of the appalling silence of white people.
I was glad to hear our discussion about the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. We certainly live in a time and in a place where people are “afraid” and are willing to give up their rights for “security.” The example of the FBI and Hoover during the civil rights era is a powerful example of what can happen when too much power is placed in the hands of one government agency. That agency can then decide upon who it will use it’s power to protect and who it will use it’s power to destroy. We can see in hindsight that Hoover used his power in the wrong way. Will my grandchildren look back at my era and see that power was used in the wrong way during this time, too?
The question that Viola Liuzzo’s life and death asks to me is – Am I willing to give up my life and the life of my family to serve the “least of these” in my society today?