Lest we forget 

Sarah Evans is getting up in years. "My mind don’t work as good as it used to," she complained. It seemed fine to me, though her body is plainly wearing out; she’s been wearing it, after all, since 1914. "Aw, you’re fine, Mama," laughs Tyrone Green, the grandson who has looked after her for years.

She remembers what it was like to be one of 14 poor black children in Mississippi in the bad old days, and coming north for a better life, and finding both it and a good husband who got a job in the steel mill and bought the sturdy house in the Boston-Edison area where she still lives, more than 10 years after he passed on.

She often thinks of the strange white woman who treated her as an equal from the first day they met, back in wartime, when white folks didn’t do that. She had been working as a clerk in a little store on Linwood then, and pepper was rationed. They had some, but the boss kept it under the counter for his special customers.

Sarah never quite understood why something made her contradict her boss and say, "No, we’ve got some under the counter," when the young redhead asked for pepper. "You’re my kind of people," the woman told her. Later, by sheer coincidence, they met again, in a home where Sarah baby-sat. Turned out the redhead lived in the flat upstairs.

They soon became best friends. Vi and Sarah. Sarah and Vi. "We were like sisters," said Sarah, who was 10 years older. Later, when Vi had her children – five in all – she would pay Sarah and her husband to help around the house.

What nobody knew was that Vi would go over to Sarah’s house and clean up for her sometimes, too. (Neither was a very immaculate housekeeper.) "She would always say, ‘Sarah, there isn’t any difference between us except that I can pay you.’ She was something else. She didn’t think like other white folks."

She sure didn’t. "They don’t think like you down there, honey. What you’re talking about is dangerous," Sarah told Vi the last time she saw her, when Vi stopped by to tell her that she had decided that very night to go south, to participate in the great voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Vi scoffed. She had grown up in the segregated South, too, in rural Georgia and Tennessee. The woman who would always be referred to as a "Detroit housewife" was, in fact, a Southern transplant who came up to find a better job during the war. Like, come to think of it, thousands of other Detroit housewives.

"Nothing’s going to happen to me," she told Sarah. Then she paused. "Will you do a favor for me? Say yes or no before I tell you what it is. If I don’t come back, will you look after my children for me?" Sarah remembered, tears welling.

"I told her I would." The call came when she was sound asleep, well past midnight, and she drove as fast as she could over to the house near Seven Mile, to a scene of reporters and cameras and scared, crying children.

They had shot Viola Liuzzo to death that night after that march, as she was driving a young black man back to Montgomery from Selma. Chased her ’63 baby-blue Oldsmobile down and put a bullet into her head, and crowed happily over having done the deed.

Unfortunately for the three Klansmen, the fourth man in the car was an FBI informant, even though he was also a pig who happily beat up civil rights demonstrators. He dropped the dime, and the next day, the president announced their arrest.

Weeks later, on what would have been Viola’s 40th birthday (she, like Martin and Malcolm, died at 39), Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

No other woman – let alone a white woman from the North – was killed during the civil rights movement. Everyone agreed her murder made the Voting Rights Act happen a lot faster than it would have. Some think without her death, it might never have come. That, more than anything else, soon ended the power of the Klan. Within a few years, even George Wallace would be courting black votes.

She died 34 years ago Thursday. Yet today Viola remains half-forgotten, even in the city she called home. J. Edgar Hoover did his slimy best to smear her, and to the extent she’s been forgotten, that old fascist in a dress succeeded.

If her murder gave voting rights to black America, it pretty much destroyed her family. Sarah did what she could, but Vi’s grieving husband drank himself to death. Her kids had troubles with drugs, the law, and just plain life itself.

Finally, a third of a century after she died, some people are finally getting the message. Her son Tony is devoting his life to making her spirit live. He and his wife, Sue, have established the Viola Gregg Liuzzo Institute for Human Rights/Assuring Human Dignity. "We want to see that her name is not forgotten," Tony said.

Few people have done more to make a city proud, with less recognition. "If you knew her, you loved her," said Sarah. The foundation’s address is PO Box 431386, Pontiac 48340; phone 248-322-9965. Viola gave everything. You might want to give her back a little.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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