Statue unveiling honors civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo

Evan James Carter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sally Liuzzo seemed close to tears when she saw the statue of her late mother unveiled Tuesday.

"You know it's Mom," Liuzzo said after the ceremony honoring Viola Gregg Liuzzo in the northwest Detroit park named for the civil rights martyr who was slain in Alabama in 1965.

"Viola marched for people to have the right to live their best life," said Metro Detroit sculptor Austen Brantley, who made the statue. "Her life tells us that we should not be complacent but to take action in our community and our nation.

"Through her symbol, we have a North Star that shines so bright," he concluded, drawing "awwws" from the audience.

The statue depicts Liuzzo staring forward with her chest out, standing over a Ku Klux Klan hood. 

Sally Liuzzo, second from left, looks on the newly unveiled statue of her late mother, Viola Liuzzo, who was killed on March 25, 1965 in Selma, Alabama while participating in voting rights demonstrations

Many other family members and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement attended the event meant to celebrate Liuzzo's life and legacy.

Daughter Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, who now lives in Oregon, attended the event with her sisters Sally and Penny and brother Anthony, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.. 

"It's such an emotional day, that it's hard to express it," Lilleboe said. "Lately more and more people want to know about her because she was a woman. She wasn't an activist, she was a mother. Dr. King asked people to come and she came." 

A sculpture of civil rights figure Viola Liuzzo was unveiled in the Northwest Detroit park baring her name on Tuesday

Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit, was one of three people killed in Selma, Alabama during voting rights demonstrations. Liuzzo was shot and killed March 25, 1965, by members of the Ku Klux Klan on a desolate stretch of U.S. 80 as she drove Leroy Moton, a black demonstrator, back to Montgomery.

"If the Ku Klux Klan knew what they did when they took my mother's life, they might have thought about it again," Lilleboe said. "She has touched so many people."

Lilleboe described her mother's actions as "unheard of" in 1965 and said her actions were maligned by J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the FBI.

Anthony "Tony" Liuzzo said his mother was different after Bloody Sunday on March 7 when state troopers attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

"You can tell how much it affected her. She was just different for a few days after that," Tony said.

Cindy Robb, the wife of the late Dean Robb, an attorney and civil rights activist who represented the family of Viola Liuzzo in a suit against the FBI, also attended the statue's dedication, as did Dorothy Aldridge of Detroit, who worked with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and met Viola Liuzzo in 1965.

Michigan State Conference NAACP President Yvonne White, Detroit NAACP president the Rev. Wendell Anthony and UAW secretary-treasurer Ray Curry also attended.

Many of those speaking at the event talked about modern civil rights challenges and urge attendees to be active in their communities and fight the injustices they encounter.

"She wasn't an organizer, she wasn't a demonstrator. She was a mother and she wanted her children to live in a better world and your children too," Lilleboe said. "The only thing we can give back is our vote."

(313) 222-8846