Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1965: KKK members are convicted of killing civil rights activist

By: - December 3, 2021 6:38 am

Viola Liuzzo statue at Viola Liuzzo Park in Detroit |Ken Coleman

On Dec. 3, 1965, an all-white jury in Alabama convicted three Ku Klux Klansmen in the murder of white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit activist, mother and part-time Wayne State University student.

The incident came at a time when America was coming to grips with deep-seeded racial inequities in education and housing. It culminated in the seminal passage and presidential signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Whites from across the country helped to support the effort, including Catholic Church clergy from all parts of the country such as James Sheehan. 

VIola Liuzzo and her daughter, Sally | Sally Liuzzo-Prado photo

Liuzzo, a mother of five, heeded the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and traveled from Detroit to Selma, Ala., in the wake of the March 1965 Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Liuzzo participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, she was murdered.

She was 39 years old.

A car with four Klan members pulled up alongside Liuzzo’s car: Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr., William Eaton and Gary Thomas Rowe. It was later revealed that Rowe was an FBI informant. They shot directly at Liuzzo, hitting her twice in the head, killing her instantly. Her car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence. Nineteen-year-old Leroy Moton, an African American, also was in Liuzzo’s car. He survived the incident.

“It changed our family,” her daughter, Sally Liuzzo-Prado, told the Advance in 2020. “I don’t think any of us were the same.” 

King, NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins; Congress on Racial Equality leader James Farmer; Lt. Gov. William Milliken; Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa; and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther attended Liuzzo’s funeral, which was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on Detroit’s northwest side.

After a second trial, Wilkins was acquitted. However, he, Thomas and Eaton were later convicted in federal court. Thomas and Wilkins each served five years of 10-year federal sentences. Eaton died in 1966 before entering prison. Rowe was granted immunity from prosecution and went into the witness protection program

In recent years, Wayne State University bestowed posthumously an honorary degree to Liuzzo. In addition, a city park named in her honor has received recreational upgrades and a bronze statue has been placed there. There also has been an effort to rename FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., after her. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.