Do you know the names Viola Liuzzo or Joan Mulholland?
If you know of these women, I applaud you. I had never heard of either one until this past week when I fell down the rabbit hole in research and learning.
I wish I had heard of these women back when I was in high school, preparing for college. Perhaps if there had been statues erected in honor of these two women in my native Georgia, I might have learned of them earlier. After all, they, too, had Georgia roots.
Yet, despite having had wonderful teachers during my high school years, I learned far more about the men of the Confederacy than I did of the women of the Civil Rights movement. Of course, that’s probably because we were knee deep in the middle of the movement at the time. These women were out making history while I was sweating in Mrs. VanLandingham’s after lunch napping class. We were supposed to be studying American history but Mrs. VanLandingham was already 102 years old and needed an afternoon nap.
How I wish every high school girl and boy had the opportunity to take Women’s Studies. How I wish there were more monuments around this nation to the multitude of brave women like Viola and Joan.
Viola Liuzzo was 39 and a mother of five when she was murdered by the KKK only hours after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his Selma to Montgomery speech. She had been one of hundreds who had heeded King’s plea to come help following the Bloody Sunday march.
Liuzzo had been an activist in social justice issues long before King issued that call. Raised up in the poverty of coal mining camps until her father lost his hand in a mine blast, Liuzzo never rose above the insecurities of her youth. Once her father became unemployed, it fell to her mom to provide for the family. That meant moving throughout Appalachia in search of the next paycheck.
She married young. Divorced young. Had babies. Took jobs. Sought out an education. Her closest friend was a black co-worker. It was through that friendship that Viola formed her deep-seated sense of justice. And it was that awareness that led her to Alabama, where she worked alongside the organizers of the Selma march. The KKK singled her out because following King’s speech, Liuzzuo and 19-year-old Leroy Moton, a local black man, were shuttling folks between Montgomery and Selma in Liuzzo’s car.
And as Joan Mulholland, herself a civil rights activist noted, “There’s only one thing worse than a nigger, and that’s a nigger-lover.” Anyone who grew up in the South during the Civil Rights era has heard that phrase repeated. Often by our own kinfolk.
Moton, covered in blood from the gunblasts to Viola Liuzzo’s head, played dead when the KKK came upon him. What neither he nor Liuzzo’s own family would know for decades to come is that one of those Klan members was an FBI informant to J. Edgar Hoover. To help keep his informant safe, Hoover pointed fingers at Liuzzo, doing what would now be considered “operational research.” The head of the US government’s chief law enforcement agency – the FBI – sought to discredit this mother of five who had been gunned down as one of his own agents participated. Hoover said that Liuzzo had abandoned her children, that she was a heroin addict and implied that she and Moton were having sex in that car when she was gunned down.
Yes, even now, our government will do anything to discredit those they see as a threat. Just ask Dr. Fauci.
It took decades before Luizzo’s children got grown enough to expose the documents that revealed how her own government had turned on Luizzo simply for doing the right thing.
Like Viola, Joan Mulholland witnessed early on in her life the social injustice of racism. Joan’s own parents were practicing racists. Her great-grandparents were slave-owners in Georgia and later became sharecroppers themselves after the war.
It was during a summer visit to her relatives in Georgia that Mulholland said she and a friend decided to walk through “nigger town.” Any of us who grew up in the South knew there was town and there was “nigger town” and one did not cross over into each other’s turf without fear. Joan recalled how the black people hid from her and her girlfriend. She saw their fear and it changed her. She was struck with a feeling that these people didn’t feel they were as good as her 10-year-old self.
And in much the same way Greta Thunberg has zeroed in on the climate injustice, Mulholland took to the issue of racial injustice. She decided then as a young girl that she would do whatever she could to fight against the racial divide.
When it came time for her to go to college, she wanted to attend an integrated church college. Her mother forbade it, deciding then that she should attend Duke University. (Seems Duke was mistaken as a haven for racists prior to Stephen Miller attending it).
It was while at Duke that Mulholland got her activist badge, attending sit-ins, educating herself about racial injustices, mixing with international student programs instead of joining a sorority like her mother desired. Her mother even called on the Dean of Women to intercede, fearing her daughter was mentally ill. Mulholland was tested for mental illness after her first arrest. And when the Dean continued to press her to stop her activism, Mulholland dropped out of Duke and joined up with the Freedom Riders, much to her racist mother’s chagrin.
Over the years, Mulholland’s activism would get her beaten in Alabama, arrested in Mississippi, imprisoned at Parchman, and still she resisted. When two blacks enrolled at the University of Georgia and riots broke out, Mulholland wondered what would happen if a white enrolled at an all black college. What would media and the power brokers have to say about that?
So she enrolled at Tugaloo University in Jackson, Ms., where she would meet Medgar Evers and MLK Jr. , and Anne Moody. Mulholland fought against all the racist tropes about what black men will do to white women by her fearless presence. For her activism, she received on-going hate mail, and was constantly being threatened by white people.
When Anne Moody and a dozen other activist staged a protest at the Woolworth counter in Jackson and were beaten for it, Mulholland marched up to the counter and joined her classmates and friends. She was attacked, called a “white nigger” and yanked away from the counter and drug outside. Despite the violence, once on her feet again, she returned through the angry mob to the counter.
She and several others were singled out to be murdered by the KKK in an effort to stop Freedom Summer. Instead, they escaped, only to have several of their friends killed the very next week. Mulholland said the deaths of her friends left her feeling more compelled than ever to do justice work. “I’ve got to do a little extra for them to promote the brotherhood of man and peace,” she said.
“Joan could have glided through life like the rest of them. She could have felt something but didn’t do anything. She could have gone out found the right husband, married well. She could have done all of that but she said, ‘There is a wrong that needs fixing. I’m gonna go fix it.’ That’s courage. I applaud that,” Luvaughan Brown, Civil Rights activist.
May God grant us all the kind of courage these women displayed.
May we have the courage the Moms in Portland are displaying right now.
“It’s not just one person who does it all,” Joan Mulholland said. “It’s not just Dr. King. It’s not just Rosa Parks. It’s not just Harriet Tubman, the way it’s taught in schools. It’s lots of people that you have never heard of doing what’s right. Going beyond themselves and out of their comfort zones, making hard choices that causes change. I saw something wrong and wanted it to change.”
Let’s not let the stories of these women be in vain.
Let’s not be overcome with despair but always be encouraged by those who sacrificed before us.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN (Mercer Univ. Press).