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Detroit — Sally Liuzzo was only 6 the last time she saw her mom alive.

Too young to remember much, she shared a story Sunday morning of her heartbreak the day her beloved guinea pig Petey died that foreshadowed later heartache. Her mother, Viola Liuzzo, crafted a little shoebox casket and a tiny satin pillow.

Sally Liuzzo addressed the congregation at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass as part of commemorations across the city to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights icon's killing by Ku Klux Klansmen in March 1965, after marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

But it was the words Viola Liuzzo said to ease her grief over Petey that help Sally Liuzzo deal with her mom's death 50 years later.

"She said we're all just shells, but that our spirits live forever," said Liuzzo. "I believe, in a way, she was preparing me for what was to come."

What was to come, and how it altered the trajectory of America's path to civil rights and devastated the lives of Viola Liuzzo's children, was the focus of the visit by Penny Herrington, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, Tony Liuzzo and Sally, the youngest child.

Four of Liuzzo's five children each took their turn at the podium to reflect on their mom, who last week received a first-ever posthumous honorary doctorate bestowed by Wayne State University. Liuzzo began attending the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit in 1964.

Many church members and guests seated in the sanctuary were overcome with emotion, shedding tears as they listened to the stories.

Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe said one of the questions she's constantly asked is, 'Why did your mom go to Selma?' " Lilleboe paused and asked incredulously, "Really? Human beings were being beaten by police and ravaged by dogs, and people want to know why she went. Was it because they were black people, and that's why people ask why? My response is why wasn't everybody there? She went because Dr. (Martin Luther) King Jr. issued the call for help and invited her to go. I'm so proud to be the daughter of one of the people who went to Selma."

Tony Liuzzo was only 10 when his mother was killed.

"When Dr. King put out the call to go to Alabama, naturally, she had to go," said Liuzzo. "After we got the news that our mother was killed, a lot of people stepped forward. John Taylor was a black man from Detroit, a mechanic at a Shell station where I had gone to get air in my bike tire." Liuzzo said Taylor looked at him and said, 'You must be Mrs. Liuzzo's son.' "

"Mr. Taylor picked me up and hugged me," said Liuzzo. "He mentored me and asked my dad if he could take me hunting."

Mary Sinclair, 47, of Detroit, was among those with tear-stained faces who took the siblings' words to heart.

"I came here with my mother because she always taught me about Viola Liuzzo and the sacrifices she made," said Sinclair. "She was so brave and it is just amazing that she felt so moved to go down there to Selma."

Clair Nowak-Boyd, 31, a transplant from St. Louis, has called Detroit home for the past five years. She said she was invited to the service by friends.

"I wanted to hear more of her story and it's really important for the city," she said. "I have friends in Ferguson, Missouri, and it's not just history we listened to today, it's still happening right now." Nowak-Boyd was referring to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a 18-year-old black man fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white former Ferguson police officer.

At the conclusion of the program, the congregation formed a huge circle, held hands and sang the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome."

Some cried as they sang:

"We'll walk hand in hand,

We'll walk hand in hand,

We'll walk hand in hand someday,

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We'll walk hand in hand someday."

SLewis@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2296

Commemorations

3 p.m. Monday: ACLU reception honoring Liuzzo, followed bya lecture at 3:30 p.m. at Partrich Auditorium, Wayne State University Law School, 471 W. Palmer, featuring Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

7 p.m Tuesday: Fundraiser for the Viola Liuzzo Park Association at Gospel Tabernacle Church, 19371 Greenfield Road in Detroit.

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