The Murder of Viola Liuzzo: A Turning Point in Ku Klux Klan History

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Forty-nine years ago, on December 3, 1965, an all-white federal jury from Alabama convicted three Ku Klux Klan members on conspiracy charges based on the murder of civil rights activist Viola Gregg Liuzzo. This was one of the first convictions following a civil rights killing.

On March 25, 1965, the white worker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Viola Liuzzo was murdered after having taken part in a Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery. She was working as a transport driver to take the civil rights activists back home. At the end of the day, she had dropped off several civil rights activists and only the African American Leroy Moten was left to bring home. While driving towards Leroy’s home, Viola was shot from another car filled with alleged Ku Klux Klan members.

The next day, President Johnson stated on national television that the FBI had arrested four men. One of them would turn out to be an undercover FBI agent, but the other three were charged with conspiracy to violate Liuzzo’s civil rights. In his statement, President Johnson defined the Klan as a “hooded society of bigots” and expressed his resolute eagerness to fight them.

The three Klansmen were charged with conspiracy and not murder due to the fact that only state courts were, and still are, permitted to indict for murder. President Johnson recognized this problem and, in order to solve it, his administration tried to develop legislation that would “strengthen the tools with which the Federal Government may deal with organized acts of violence of this kind.”

As a result of Liuzzo’s murder, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan. An internal HUAC memorandum referring to a similar case, the murder of two African Americans by Klansmen in Mississippi, showed that the race of the victim mattered for whether or not perpetrators were convicted. Nevertheless, the Liuzzo case was the very first time in which an official investigation implied that the Klan was “Un-American,” a true turning point in the Klan’s history.

The Roosevelt Study Center sources clearly show that the Liuzzo case was an important watershed in the Civil Rights era. This was not only because it was one of the first times that Ku Klux Klan members were convicted, but also because it initiated an entirely new way of thinking about the Klan, and, perhaps more importantly, it induced President Johnson to investigate the possibilities for federal legislation to suppress violence against civil rights activists. At the same time, however, Liuzzo’s death also shows that in 1965, in spite of the adoption of the Civil Rights Act, the civil rights movement still had not fully achieved its goals, and its activists continued to be in danger of their lives.