Two Violas: Mothers of the Movement

When I think about the women who bent the arc of history toward justice, I tend to think about the ones who were holding their lives and families together the best they could while engaging in some of the boldest, most high-stakes activism I can imagine. It’s one thing to march for justice in my sneakers and then to retire home to my dishwasher. For me, marching is a good walk with a good message. I enjoy the protection of my skin color, the knowledge of my rights, the faith they’ll be upheld in the justice system, and the blessing of time. It’s quite another to march in your Sunday best, the imminent threat of physical and sexual violence, jail, and concern for what will happen to your children as a result. Two Violas gave their treasure to the nation. On the evening of February 18, 1965, Viola Jackson attended an evening prayer meeting with her 82-year-old father, Cager Lee and her 26-year-old son, Jimmie Lee Jackson. They gathered with a group of five hundred in Marion, Alabama for a prayerful walk to  the Perry County jail, where James Orange — a young man working with SCLC to register voters — was held. The Alabama State Troopers lay in wait that winter night. They weren’t there to protect the marchers. They were there to oil the machine of inequality with the blood of peaceful protesters. Troopers shot out the street lights and assaulted the reporters covering the protest. Jimmie, Viola, and Cager Lee ducked into Mack’s Cafe, but the state troopers came after them. Viola Jackson raised a son. That son grew to be a man who worked in a pulp mill. That son was an ordained Baptist deacon at St. James Baptist Church in Marion. That son threw his young body between Alabama State Troopers and his mother and elderly grandfather. Viola’s son was shoved up against a cigarette machine, and shot twice at close range in the belly. Viola’s son couldn’t be admitted and treated in a local hospital, because he was black. So, it was a night ride, forty miles on a night with State Troopers raging, over the county line to Dallas County so that Jimmie Lee could be hospitalized in Selma. Viola Jackson’s son died of his wounds on February 26, 1965. Eulogized by local civil rights leaders and Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmie Lee Jackson was laid to rest next to his father on March 3, 1965, up on a pine hill in an old slave cemetery. Viola Jackson, newly bereaved, was suddenly thrust to the national stage. Her son’s death inspired the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” March and later the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, two weeks later.  Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killer was plead guilty to manslaughter 45 years later and served five months in jail. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit, answered the call. A Unitarian and local NAACP activist, she headed south in her Oldsmobile. “It’s everybody’s fight,” she told her family. On the final day of the march (which she famously completed with her shoes in hand) Viola Liuzzo volunteered to shuttle marchers between Selma and Montgomery to help them to airports and bus stations. With her was a black teenager, Leroy Merton. In At Canaan’s Edge, Taylor Branch writes about what happened next. A “missionary squad” of Birmingham Klansmen spotted the car with a black man and a white woman inside. Frustrated that their attempts to shut down the march had failed, they’d been given a final pep talk by a fellow Klansman, a man who was charged in the beating death of Rev. James Reeb. “I did my job,” said [Elmer] Reed patting them [his fellow Klasmen] on the back. “Now you go and do yours.” The Klan shot Viola Liuzzo for riding in a car with a black man. The Klan shot Viola Liuzzo for her out of state plates, her exercise of First Amendment rights. The Klan shot Viola Liuzzo for not staying in her Detroit kitchen, helping her six-year-old Sally learn cursive. The Klan shot Viola Liuzzo for her refusal to live in a country that denied its black citizens the ballot box. The carful of Klansmen who killed Viola Liuzzo included a paid FBI informant. The J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI diverted suspicion by spreading rumors to the media that Viola Liuzzo went to the South to have sex with black men and to take drugs. Her motherless children were taunted, driven out of  school, called “N–er lover’s baby.” Their father was tortured by having to defend his wife’s character and resorted to moving his children to a new school and hiring private security to protect his family. In the following years, criminal and civil charges for her death ended in mistrial and acquittal.

Viola Jackson and Viola Liuzzo: we hold up your prayers for this country. We thank you for your sacrifice. We honor you with our walk.

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