The anniversary of the death of Heather Heyer a year ago Sunday in Charlottesville, Va., has me thinking about the connections between her death and the deaths of civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s and one in particular, Viola Liuzzo.
March 25, 1965, was a mild winter day even for Alabama — 75 degrees — albeit accompanied by the normal Deep South humidity.
Marchers were dispersing after hearing Martin Luther King’s speech on the capitol steps in Montgomery. Among them was Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white mother of five from Detroit, who joined the march after witnessing images of civil rights marchers being beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge two weeks earlier. When she told her husband she was joining the march, she stated, “It’s everybody’s fight.”
Later that March evening, as she drove Highway 80, shuttling marchers from Montgomery back to Selma, a car pulled alongside her and ran her car into a ditch. Shots rang out. Her passenger, a black teenager named Leroy Moton, pretended to be dead. He would survive the attack; Liuzzo, who was shot in the face, did not.
An investigation later revealed that the car that ran Liuzzo and Moton into the ditch was driven by and was full of KKK members, one of whom was an FBI informant.
Almost immediately rumors began to circulate about Liuzzo, rumors later discovered to have been created by J. Edgar Hoover to detract from FBI involvement in the murder. She was called a “N-lover” who left her husband and five children to go south to have sex with black men, resuscitating the Jim Crow-era trope of miscegenation, which justified a majority of the lynchings committed against black men in the early 20th century.
Liuzzo was also accused of being a drug addict. Notably, a poll taken by the widely popular Ladies Home Journal magazine in July of that year showed that 55 percent of respondents said she was not a good mother ostensibly because she had left her children to participate in the march.
Fast forward to August 2017, half a century later. Heather Heyer, a white, 32-year-old paralegal, is attending the march in Charlottsville in support of equality and to protest a white supremacist/neo-Nazi inspired gathering.
Donald Trump, supported by 56 percent of white women who voted for him, was fueled in part by an anti-feminist backlash against Hillary Clinton.
While the topic of race certainly needs to be front and center as we witness the current administration fan the flames of a disaffected white populous, as a country we also need to address the lingering resentment surrounding the progress that women have made as a result of the women’s movement, a movement that arose, in large part, from the “rights revolution” created in the wake of the modern civil rights movement.
The backlash against Liuzzo was not unusual for 1960s Cold War America, but the disturbing response in alarming numbers to the murder of Heather Heyer is a reminder that as far back as the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, African-American and women’s rights continue to be connected.
We need to stop resting on the false assumption that the revolutions of the Sixties ended the most heinous forms of discrimination. We cannot anymore rest on the laurels of the many successes that emerged from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Perhaps it is time for a new revolution if only to remind America that we are already a great nation.
Shannon Frystak is a professor of history at East Stroudsburg University and the author of “Our Minds on Freedom: Women and the Struggle for Black Equality in Louisiana, 1924-1967” and co-editor and author of “Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times.”