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

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: Eugene 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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