Monday, February 1, 2016

Forgotten Memorials: The Conscience of Viola Liuzzo and the "Heroism" of the KKK

by Nomad

One state representative in Georgia has drafted legislation calling for the eternal preservation of Confederate monuments, as a testimony to those who "suffered and died for the cause."
Who we select to honor and who becomes our source of pride says so much about who we are as a people.

Cultural Terrorism

The other day I was struck to read about Georgia State Rep. Tommy Benton's proposed amendments to the Georgia Constitution. One of the two amendment aims at protecting the Confederate monuments at Stone Mountain.  The bill salutes the heroes of the Confederacy like Lee and Davis. Monuments dedicated to such heroes of the South, the bill demands, shall never be 
"altered, removed, concealed or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.”
What cause is he talking about? Nothing less than the overthrow of the federal government.

Republican Benton has called the movement to remove Confederate symbols in the South a form of "cultural terrorism."
Our source tells us:
“That’s no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). “I feel very strongly about this. I think it has gone far enough. There is some idea out there that certain parts of history out there don’t matter anymore and that’s a bunch of bunk.”
It is a big deal in the South and remembering the Confederate past and the fallen warriors is considered part of the South's cultural heritage. It was literally all the South had left after the crushing defeat.

The problem is, contrary to what Benton says, many in the South would prefer to remember a warped version of their history. A history without shame or misjudgment and effectively free of facts. 
(And not just the long past history, but, as we shall see, the more recent times too.)
For a person that talks about remembering history, Benton seems to forget that it was foolishness of the proud and rather stupid politicians in Georgia and the other rebelling states that kicked off America's greatest and most pointless war. 

These were men in state capitols who, despite years of warnings, became so determined to protect the inexcusable institution of slavery that they led the South into a needless war followed by decades of misery.

Following the surrender of the South, there was serious talk in the year of putting Jefferson Davis on trial for treason and for complicity in the assassination of the murder of President Lincoln. One book, written that year makes a case for punishment. 
All agree that he was guilty of treason, and if justice is done him, he has simply to go through the form of a trial by a judge and an impartial jury, be convicted, and hung as an example to all future time.
As part of reconciliation between the divided nation, Davis was never tried and was released after two years. Many  in the North saw argued that this appeasement policy was a fatal mistake and a mercy that could be in the future be misinterpreted.
*   *   *
Every person can have his opinion, no matter how ridiculous. However, where Benton crosses the line is his reported support for the KKK. One source noted that Benton has said that, while he didn’t agree with all of KKK methods, the group had “made a lot of people straighten up." According to Benton. the Klan "was not so much a racist thing, but a vigilante thing to keep law and order."
That's like saying Al-Qaeda isn't so much a terrorist group but more of a civic organization. 

The Story of Viola Liuzzo

In many ways, the civil rights movement was not merely a racial issue. It was a question of who would be allowed to sit at the table and who would be ignored.
While the protests normally pitted the black minority against the white majority, it was for many people also a matter of conscience.

One of those people was Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife, and mother of five.

In many ways, Viola seems to have been a fairly typical woman of the period, complicated and yet easy to understand. 
Liuzzo was born in the town of California, Pennsylvania on 11 April 1925. Her father, Heber Gregg had been a miner, and after a mining accident was disabled for life. Her mother, Eva, was a school teacher. 
Viola grew up in the midst of the Great Depression and when she was six, her parents moved to Georgia and Tennessee in a search for work.
Even as a girl, Viola had a defiant character. Her father must have considered her a bit of a wild child and the record does indeed suggest a rebellious or, at least, impulsive temperament. (For example, she had dropped out of high school at 14, a decision she would later regret.)

By the age of sixteen, she left home and married a man twice her age. That marriage, written off as a bit of frivolous adventure, was annulled soon after.
Two years later, with World War II in full swing, the Gregg family was on the move again. The war effort offered an opportunity for the unemployed. 

At 18, Viola found work as a cashier at a factory cafeteria. Soon afterward, she married, had two daughters, and six years later, divorced.
Not long after her divorce, she met and married Jim Liuzzo, a Teamster Union organizer. With Liuzzo, she had three more children. 

At the ripe old age of 36, Viola made the decision to go back to work and, more importantly, to develop herself by taking classes to become a medical assistant.
Her education was to have an unexpected side effect, according to one biography. When she returned to school, she found learning to be exciting and it opened her mind to new ideas, people and experiences she had never before considered. Critically, she found that she possessed a conscience and a deep sense of justice.

That's not always an easy thing to have. She lost her first job at a hospital when she took umbrage against hospital officials over the unfair treatment of a female staff.

Viola was, in some ways, fortunate. Her husband's adequate income allowed her time to fulfill her dream of higher education.
Like many women of her time, Viola began to question whether she was actually satisfied with being only a wife and mother.
For this reason, she went on to pursue a college degree in nursing, applying at Wayne State University. 

At that time, Detroit was highly segregated and became one of the centers of civil rights activism. While at the university, Viola saw first-hand the discrimination and gross disparities between white and black America.
Although her husband might not have fully understood his wife's new activism, according to biographers, he supported her pursuit of education and. knew Viola was her own person and respected and loved her for that. 

Eventually, she became one of the few white members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Everybody's Fight

On the evening of 7 March 1965, Viola and her husband were, like millions of Americans, watching the evening news. The reports coming out of Selma Alabama were shocking, to say the least. Images of state police beating peaceful protesters moved Viola to tears. For the next few days, she brooded about the appropriate response. 
When the news of the murder of James Reeb, a white American Unitarian Universalist minister, shocked the entire nation, Viola made a fateful decision.  She told her husband that she had to do something to help this cause.
This, she told her friends and family, wasn't just a matter of race. It was "everybody’s fight.”

Her decision to travel cross-country to join the march could not have been an easy one. Even before the march, according to the book,  White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice, local media and politicians had characterized the event as an opportunity for young white women to engage in promiscuous sex with black men. The idea effectively matched the stereotype of the young buck with the Southern taboo of interracial sexual relations.

On 22 March, the Alabama legislature passed a resolution that claimed that there was evidence of "much fornication and young women were returning to their respective states as unwed expectant mothers." To hear it, it was less of a demonstration against the discriminatory Jim Crows laws as one big black and white orgy. A slap against the deepest morality of the Southern way of life.
While this talk might sound like a lot of silliness, it inevitably led, whether intended or not, to outrage by groups that had used the same fear tactics since the end of the Civil War. 
Namely, the KKK.
Upon arriving, Viola was assigned to transportation services for people wishing to attend the demonstrations in Selma. By all reports, she was a tireless worker with a cheerful enthusiasm. As she shuttled protesters to and from Selma, her compassion, said one priest who worked at her side, was contagious and "put many of us to shame."

On 25 March 1965, following the three-day march, a group of Klansmen who had traveled from Birmingham to keep the marchers "under surveillance," was driving around the area. The men were later identified as Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., Eugene Thomas, William Orville Eaton, and Collie LeRoy Wilkins.

Heading out of Selma toward Montgomery, they stopped at a light and saw a green Oldsmobile with a Michigan license plate. At the wheel was a white woman and her passenger was a young black male. 
That was all this group needed as a pretext to unleash their hate. According to the court testimony, one of the men said:
"Will you look at that, They're going to park someplace together. I'll be a son of a bitch. Let's take 'em."
Clearly the Klanman's words were a direct reflection of the Georgia legislators' irresponsible remarks about loose white women and black men.  

Passenger LeRoy Moton would later testify to his surprise at Viola's nonchalance when they discovered they were being followed by a carload of white men. In an effort to escape the group, Liuzzo raced down the highway at speeds close to 100 miles an hour. 

Mary Stanton, author of "From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo" captures the moment according to the court records:
"That lady just hauled ass," Rowe testified. "I mean she put the gas to it. As we went across a bridge and some curves, I remember seeing a Jet Drive-In Restaurant on my right hand side. I seen the brakes just flash one time and I thought she was going to stop there. She didn't ... she was just erratic ... Then we got pretty much even with the car and the lady just turned her head solid all the way around and looked at us. I will never forget it in my lifetime, and her mouth flew open like she -- in my heart I've always said she was saying, "Oh God," or something like that ... You could tell she was startled. 
At that moment, one of the Klansmen then threw a .38 caliber pistol and fired twice. The bullet smashed through her car window and hit the Viola in the skull, killing her instantly. Her passenger managed to bring the car to a halt on an embankment.

When the Klansmen went to survey their work, Moton played dead. And his quick thinking probably saved his life. The last thing the Klansmen wanted was a witness.
After his attackers left, he somehow flagged down a truck carrying more civil rights workers and immediately reported the killing to the police.

Blaming the Victim

In the days following the murder of Liuzzo, a smear campaign against the victim automatically began. Local media suggested that the victim and her passenger had been engaging in extramarital sex and drug use.
Even Southern whites who sympathized with the civil rights movement questioned why a white woman would be alone in a car with a black man. It was something that no decent white woman did.
As far as the Southern mores, Liuzzo, victim though she was, had brought it upon herself.

During the trial, the defense relied on blaming the victim but those who actually knew her were outraged.  
Reporters were at ground zeros, dutifully taking pictures when her children heard the news of their mother's murder. 

One newspaper back in Detroit castigated those who criticized her character with this statement.
"We cannot wish mercy to those who have passed judgment of hate upon her." 
The author added:
"Maybe she has finally found a life free of prejudice and hate."
The smear campaign went beyond that. It was later learned from documents obtained by the family in 1978, that FBI director Edgar J. Hoover had compiled more than a thousand pages of evidence aimed at discrediting Viola. The evidence described her as mentally ill, a drug addict, and a tramp. (That's odd too since Hoover became famous for his long war against the Klan.) 

And the FBI files didn't stop there. 
Her husband was also characterized as Teamster thug with organized crime connections. These accusations - based on  much innuendo and no actual evidence- were subsequently leaked to the news media in order to depict Liuzzo as "an immoral woman in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Conspiracy and Justice

The case was further complicated by what many saw as a higher conspiracy. As it turned out one of the participants in the murder, Gary Rowe, had actually been a paid FBI informant. and would later turn his co-conspirators into the police, becoming the government's chief witness for the prosecution.

From the start of the case, it was obvious that the KKK would take an active role in the trial. 
Wilkins who was tried first on a state murder charge. His attorney was Matt J. Murphy, Jr., a Klan lawyer or "Imperial Klonsel." Robert Shelton, "Imperial Wizard" of the United Klans of America, sat at the defense table until the judge ordered him to move to a spectator's seat.
To the jury, it was a crystal-clear message: Convict these men and you will have the Klan to deal with. 

The original trial of the defendants ended in a hung jury. The all-white jury returned deadlocked, with 10 members voting for conviction. The two holdouts belonged to the white racist Citizens Council
Few were surprised but some were also deeply ashamed too. When it came to the Klan, justice for Liuzzo was a long shot at best. (Why the prosecutor didn't demand a change of venue is unclear.)

Interestingly, the defense attorney offered a novel approach, to say the least. Rowe, as a witness, could not be trusted the lawyer argued. His testimony was simply not credible.
Because he had, in testifying, broken his sworn Klan oath never to testify against a fellow Klansman. Klansmen swear to die rather than divulge secrets, resisting any "bribe, flattery, threats, passion, punishment, persecution, persuasion, [or] any other enticements."

The logic made perfect sense to many hard-liners in the South. If he was willing to break that his Klan oath, how could anybody believe anything he said? 
Besides, this was a white woman alone in a car with a black man. At night. So whatever happened to her was her own fault.  
Upon their release on May 10, the three accused killers took part of a Klan parade which closed with a standing ovation for them. 

During the re-trial in August, the defense attorney Murphy was killed in fiery car crash. A former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, Art Hanes, took over the case. After yet another all-white jury was selected on October 20, the two-day re-trial concluded with the decision to acquit Wilkins.
With that judgment, justice would have another attempt in a federal court. In that decision, the men involved were convicted and spent ten years in prison.
By the time Hoover died in 1978, the three were free men.  

It was later discovered that Rowe himself had been involved in other attacks, including a church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 which had resulted in the death of four schoolgirls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair. 
Rowe escaped prosecution due to immunity he received for his testimony. 

Ultimately all subsequent attempts to obtain a satisfactory form of justice for Viola Liuzzo reached dead ends.

Monuments and Memorials

This brings us back to where we started: Memorials and monuments recognizing fallen heroes. 
When you hear politicians Georgia's Benton talk today about heroes of the South, the names normally include Jefferson Davis or Robert Lee. 

For a great many proud Southerners, these men are a source of pride and for over a century, statues of these men have graced capitals and parks throughout the South.

As of the most recent count, there were over 25 memorials for the Confederate President Jefferson Davis alone. This includes a presidential library in Mississippi, a 351-foot (107 m) tall concrete obelisk in a state park named after him in Kentucky and  a bust of Jefferson Davis located outside of the Jeff Davis County Court House building in Hazlehurst, Georgia. In fact, the desk of Jefferson Davis is located on the floor of the U.S. Senate. 
Numerous public schools throughout the South have been named for Jefferson Davis. In our time, children of all races attend schools named after a man who once said:
"African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing."
Despite the fears of the Georgian politician, nobody needs to worry too much that Davis will be forgotten. 

Most of these people who honor Lee and Davis have probably never heard of Viola Liuzzo. In contrast, there are few public monuments dedicated to her.

Her name appears on a memorial dedicated to all of the martyrs of the civil rights movement, located outside the visitors center in the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. We find this description:
On the memorial's circular black granite table, 40 names are braided in gold block letters. They form a circular timeline, beginning with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional, and ending with the 1968 murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- space has been left between the first and last entry to honor the names that have been lost or forgotten.
Her image can also be found in the Civil Rights Memorial mural at the bottom of the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of Selma. 

In 1991, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference set up a memorial marker at the site of her murder on Route 80 outside of Selma.
The stone marker honors Viola's sacrifice given in the struggle for the right to vote.

Those Who Really Suffered and Died

Today Georgia State Rep. Benton claims that the KKK was just "a vigilante thing" whose goal was "to keep law and order."  In fact, the organization, like every terrorist organization, is and was a group that has refused to obey law and order, that felt its cause was so important that it was above the law.
That has been true from its inception. If you have any doubts, glance through the testimonies of victims in the 1871 Congressional report. It is a catalog of whippings, lynchings, and homicides all in the name of white supremacy that began immediately after the KKK was established. 

The murder of Viola Liuzzo, the killing of a priest, the mass murder of four children and the endless isolated cases and acts against African-American citizens all demonstrate pretty conclusively that the group's more recent past is just as dishonorable and deplorable as its historical past. Up until recently, the organization attacked Jews and Catholics.
Furthermore, the KKK is still actively recruiting new members and is now calling for the murder of immigrants and gay and lesbian citizens.
Despite its record of very un-Christian behavior, it has long considered itself with a Christian organization upholding values of the faith.
With the help of apologists like Rep. Benton, they carry on their work more or less in the open. 

Benton fumes at the idea that people could somehow forget the "bravery and heroism" of citizens who "suffered and died for their cause."  Tragically, people like Benton refuse to admit that there really are causes that deserve to be forgotten. (Or at least, not be transformed into a source of misplaced pride.)

Removing the memorials to people who were seen by the majority of Americans as traitors of the country, as far as Benton is concerned, amounts to "cultural cleansing."
Yet, couldn't there be some aspects to the South that might even now-need a good scrubbing? 

Rep. Benton has claimed to deplore the methods of the KKK (which include public lynching, tar-and-featherings, rapes and a host of other violent attacks) but seems to applaud the group's ability to make "a lot of people straighten up.” 

That would include people like Viola Liuzzo, the unarmed mother of five, who traveled far from home to answer the call of her own conscience and was then murdered.