WSU to honor civil rights martyr Liuzzo with degree

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe cried when she got the call from Wayne State University telling her that her mother, the late Viola Gregg Liuzzo, would be granted an honorary doctor of laws.

Then Kim Trent, who called on behalf of the school, cried.

Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five, was murdered by Ku Klux Klan night riders on March 25, 1965, as she drove her Oldsmobile on a highway near Selma, Alabama. Liuzzo, 39, was a student at Wayne State and the wife of Teamsters business agent Anthony Liuzzo.

The degree from Wayne State, the first time the university has bestowed one posthumously, will be the highlight of three days of honors, April 10-12, that are pegged to Liuzzo's April 11 birthday (she would have been 90).

It's a time of heightened awareness of what happened in Alabama 50 years ago, prompted by the feature film "Selma" which went into wide release in early January and focuses on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the violence-plagued voting rights marches in Alabama in 1965.

Liuzzo felt compelled to drive to Selma that year after seeing TV images of voting rights marchers being beaten and hearing King's national call for help. She went despite her husband's misgivings.

"There's a magic to the movie 'Selma,' and now the degree from Wayne, that makes us feel this is a very significant time for all of us," said Liuzzo's daughter, Lilleboe, 66. She and three of her siblings Penny, Tony and Sally will travel to Detroit in April for the Wayne State honor.

Trent, who is on Wayne State's Board of Governors, became emotional while talking to Lilleboe because she'd tried 10 years ago to get an honorary degree for Liuzzo, unsuccessfully. After Trent saw the film "Selma" (in which Liuzzo is depicted) and read a story in The Detroit News on Liuzzo's life, she decided to renew her effort, now as a member of the board. This time, the board voted unanimously to grant Liuzzo the honor.

"It really means the world to me, that we're planning these events," Trent said. "Her death is what makes her such a significant leader. She was someone who was willing to sacrifice her life. If you talk to her family, they'll tell you she knew the danger of going to Selma. She was not naive. I felt that kind of bravery should be acknowledged by the university."

As part of the April weekend's events, Wayne's Law School will dedicate a tree or greenspace in Liuzzo's name in the Law School courtyard, and Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, will give a lecture about her activism.

"She walked right into danger," said Gary Pollard, chairman of WSU's Board of Governors. "She had a just heart, she wanted to do right by people, and ended up losing her life in such a tragic way."

Education meant the world to Liuzzo, her family said. She'd grown up in poverty in Georgia and Tennessee, especially after her father lost his hand in a coal mining accident. The Greggs moved to Detroit so Liuzzo's mother could work on a Ford assembly line and support the family.

It wasn't until Liuzzo was married to a man with a solid income that she was able to pursue her education. She earned a certificate as a medical technician, then she enrolled in Wayne State's nursing program.

"My mother knew that education was the way out of poverty and oppression," Lillieboe said. "She saw it as a way to level the playing field." Liuzzo used to tell her children how as a child she once stole money from a cash register to give to a poor black child. "She came to realize that, as badly as she was treated, being poor, a poor black child was treated even worse," her daughter said.

When Liuzzo was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, most of her family and friends aspired to graduate from high school and get a job. She wanted more, and was particularly interested in medicine.

"As soon as Sally (her youngest child) was born, she decided to fulfill what she always wanted — an education," Lillieboe said.

Liuzzo's intense idealism about racial inequality and the suppression of black voting rights prompted her to go to protests in downtown Detroit with other Wayne State students.

The day after her death, as a Detroit News reporter interviewed the family at their home on Marlowe in northwest Detroit, 6-year-old daughter Sally asked, "Why couldn't Mommy have just died from being old?"

"She died doing what she believed in," her father, Anthony Liuzzo replied (Liuzzo, who worked for Teamsters Local 247, died in 1978).

That a white woman from the North could be murdered while volunteering at a march caused such revulsion over civil rights violence nationally, it helped push through the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 and prompted a federal crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan.

Even though she was praised as a civil rights martyr, the national furor over her death and attendant scrutiny was hard on her family. Her husband received hate mail, including a photo of his murdered wife in her car. He and the children — Penny, 18; Mary, 17; Tommy, 14; Tony, 10; and Sally, 6 — were under siege in their house. They were guarded first by Teamsters, then hired security. A cross was burned on their front lawn, and the children were harassed at school.

Over the years, as their efforts to sue the government over her death failed (a paid FBI informant was in the car of Klansmen who followed and murdered her), her children have struggled with their mother's martyrdom.

It took decades, but Lilleboe said she's finally found peace, especially after reading the letters and emails from young people on the Facebook page Viola Liuzzo Civil Rights Martyr. She and her siblings will also gather this month in Selma, at events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the voting rights marches.

"We've been living with her death for 50 years. My whole thing is getting back her life," Lilleboe said. "That's why this degree is so beautiful. It's in recognition of her life, beyond her martyrdom and death."

Wayne State's Trent said Liuzzo is a particularly apt role model for the school, "particularly because she was a mature student, almost 40 when she died," she said. "We have a lot of nontraditional students, and students who think about changing the world. There is no better example of that than Mrs. Liuzzo."

WSU events honoring Viola Gregg Liuzzo

1:30 p.m. April 10: Wayne State will grant a posthumous honorary doctor of laws degree to Liuzzo in a ceremony at the Spencer Partrich Auditorium.

Later in the afternoon, the law school will dedicate a tree or greenspace in Liuzzo's name.

April 13: Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, will speak about Liuzzo at the annual Dean Robb Public Interest Lecture in a talk entitled "With Justice for All in a Changing America." The Robb lecture is named for Dean A. Robb, a longtime activist/civil rights attorney (and Wayne law alumnus), and is meant to "inspire law students, attorneys, public interest groups and citizens to become more active in public service and public interest law."

Non-Wayne State events

1 p.m. April 11: Macomb Community College professor of history Michael Placco will talk about Liuzzo's early years, her involvement in civil rights, her murder and the years of legal proceedings her family endured. Location: Room K130, WCC's Albert L. Lorenzo Cultural Center, 44575 Garfield, Clinton Township.

April 11: Organizers are hoping to rededicate a refurbished Viola Liuzzo Playground in northwest Detroit.

Several other events by various groups honoring Liuzzo, including a screening of the 2004 documentary about her, "Home of the Brave," are in the works.