Killed For Taking Part In 'Everybody's Fight'

This summer, NPR is airing several reports looking at watershed moments in the Civil Rights movement. Several Civil Rights advocates who died pursuing equality left behind devastated families, especially children. While immensely proud of their parents, many report it was a struggle to grow up in the shadow of a martyred hero. This story originally aired on All Things Considered on Aug. 12, 2013.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Coming up, we'll look at the controversy surrounding baby names.

But first, this summer, NPR is looking at watershed moments in the civil rights movement and talking to children whose parents lost their lives as civil rights activists. Today, we hear from the daughter of Viola Liuzzo.

When Ku Klux Klan members shot Liuzzo after a protest march in Alabama, it made national news. She remains the only white woman to die in the civil rights movement. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story of Viola Liuzzo and her children.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In an obscure corner of Detroit, Michigan, there's a battered playground honoring a civil rights martyr. It has an overgrown baseball field, some missing swings and, on a broken fence, a rectangular wooden sign.

SALLY LIUZZO-PRADO: It says Viola Liuzzo Playground, and it's all tore up and definitely could at least use a paint job.

BATES: Sally Liuzzo-Prado was 6 when her mother, Viola Liuzzo, was murdered. The Detroit housewife and mother of five had been an active NAACP member. She was horrified at the violence she saw inflicted upon black protesters on television. So when she heard of a four-day, 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to support voting rights, she packed a bag. She told her husband: It's everybody's fight, kissed her children and began the drive south.

LIUZZO-PRADO: She called us every night. I had learned how to cursive write, and she was so excited. And she told me to write my name and put it on her dresser and she'd see it when she got home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

BATES: Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo and thousands of other marchers made it to Montgomery where King spoke on the Capitol steps, telling the crowd freedom was imminent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FOOTAGE)

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING: How long? Not long...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, sir.

KING: ...because no lie can live forever.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, sir.

KING: How long? Not long.

BATES: That night, Viola Liuzzo, tired but exhilarated, was shuttling local marchers back to their homes when a car filled with Ku Klux Klan members pulled alongside her and shot her in the head. She died instantly. Martin Luther King attended Viola Liuzzo's funeral and comforted her family after. But not everyone agreed she was a hero.

A group of people tried to break down the Liuzzos' door, and a cross was burned on their lawn. But what Sally Liuzzo remembers most vividly is the morning she returned to first grade after her mother's death. Her big sister Penny had polished her saddle shoes.

LIUZZO-PRADO: And it was pouring rain that day. And I looked down at my saddle shoes and the white polish was coming off. Well, these people, grown ups, lined our - the streets and were throwing rocks at me calling me N-lover's baby. I didn't know what that was, so I thought they were making fun of my shoes.

BATES: Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamster official, withdrew his daughter from the school and had her transferred.

LIUZZO-PRADO: And dad hired two armed guards at our house 24/7 for two years.

BATES: And then there were the rumors. After her death, there were newspaper reports that Viola had gone south to meet and have sex with black men, that she was a drug addict. The Ladies' Home Journal actually polled its readers to see if they thought Viola was a good mother. Fifty-five percent didn't. The family couldn't figure out why anyone would say such things. Then, when the Klansmen were put on trial for Viola's death, they learned a key witness was a paid FBI informant who had been in the Klansmen's car.

Years later, the family sought to have Viola's FBI file opened. Finally, they succeeded. And that's when they discovered that the rumors about her came directly from J. Edgar Hoover. The family believes he was desperate to divert attention from the bureau by smearing Viola.

The smears had taken an awful toll. Anthony Liuzzo became a heavy drinker and died. The Liuzzo children all moved away. Sally, the youngest, was later diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. But two years ago, she elected to return to her hometown.

LIUZZO-PRADO: The older I got, the more I realized that there was a lot of work to do in Detroit still. You know, and it's not so much just for her to have recognition. It's to right the wrongs that were done to her by J. Edgar Hoover.

BATES: In May, Sally accepted the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award in her mother's name, an honor given only to one other, Nelson Mandela. It was a deeply satisfying moment. But even more satisfying for Sally was a conversation she had with another martyr's child, Martin Luther King III, when both attended the 1989 dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

LIUZZO-PRADO: And he pulled me aside, and he said: I wanted you to know something. Thirty years ago, my dad couldn't be in this ballroom. Today, you and I are here together, and it's because of your mother. And I've never forgotten that.

BATES: Sally Liuzzo-Prado holds tight to that memory and to the hope that eventually her mother will be honored with a new park in a more central place so everyone can appreciate the Viola Liuzzo her family cherished. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

GONYEA: To take a look at the rest of the stories about the children of Civil Rights activists, go to our website npr.org.

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