Civil Rights Martyr Viola Liuzzo
One of the most notable women in Teamster history is Viola Liuzzo. Liuzzo was the wife of a Teamster business agent and not afraid to stand up for what she believed in. This determination to fight injustice would ultimately cost Liuzzo her life but her sacrifice helped strengthen the civil rights movement during the 1960s.
She was born Viola Gregg in Pennsylvania in 1925 and when she was 6 her family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. She left high school after only one year and in 1943 married George Argyris with whom she had two children. That marriage ended after several years. In 1951 she married Teamster business agent Anthony Liuzzo. She and Anthony would go on to have three more children of their own.
Yet even though she loved her husband and children, Liuzzo was not content simply staying home and being a housewife. While the second wave of feminism was just getting under way, Liuzzo was challenging what it meant to be a woman, wife and mother in 1960s America.
Regretting her decision to leave school early, she resumed her education at the Carnegie Institute in Detroit before transferring to Wayne State University in 1962. One day on campus at Wayne State, she called her husband to tell him she wanted to go to Selma, Alabama and assist with the struggle that was going on there for civil rights. Her husband was worried about her going to Alabama but knew that she was determined to do what she believed was right.
Following the fatal shooting of Jimmy Lee Jackson by police during a voter rights demonstration and the “Bloody Sunday” march on March 7, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on people across the country to come to Alabama to help in the struggle. Liuzzo—like thousands of other civil rights sympathizers that month—headed South on March 8.
On the evening of March 25, 1965, Liuzzo and Leroy Moton were riding along Route 80 in Liuzzo’s 1963 Oldsmobile. They had just finished driving activists home after that day’s march when a car full of four Klansmen pulled up next to Liuzzo’s car and fired two shots at her in the head, killing her instantly. Since Liuzzo was in the driver’s seat, the car ran off the road and into a ditch. Moton was covered in Liuzzo’s blood and so the Klansmen believed he was dead when they stopped to check on their victims. He was eventually able to flag down a motorist and get help.
Liuzzo’s death shocked a nation that had already witnessed Jackson’s death and the slaying of Rev. James Reeb, another Selma volunteer. On March 30, Liuzzo’s funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Detroit. Many important political, labor and civil rights leaders attended Liuzzo’s funeral, including Teamsters General President James R. Hoffa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Teamsters International Vice President Harold Gibbons; NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins; Michigan Lt. Gov. William G. Miliken; and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther.
Teamsters General President James R. Hoffa said that Liuzzo’s bravery in the face of such danger was what made her similar to other martyrs of the labor movement like those who died in the Ludlow Massacre, the Pullman Strike and the Homestead Massacre.
“She had faith in what she believed, and was one of those rare individuals who acted instead of just giving lip service to a principle,” Hoffa said.
Many believe that it was Viola Liuzzo’s ultimate sacrifice that helped push the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.