John Shearer: Selma Participant Viola G. Liuzzo Was A Former Chattanoogan

Monday, March 2, 2015 - by John Shearer

From March 6-8, the nation’s eyes will focus again on Selma, Ala., as various events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famous Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march will be observed.
 
President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush are scheduled to be there, and so are Sally Liuzzo Prado and Penny Herrington.
 
The latter two are among the five children of Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a former Chattanoogan, who was gunned down and killed alongside U.S. Highway 80 near Lowndesboro.
The incident had occurred after she was taking some marchers to the Montgomery airport following the famous multi-day march.
 
The death of this 39-year-old white woman who had come from her Detroit home to help in the march to push for the passage of a Voting Rights Act remains one of the more somber events in American civil rights history. It was referenced prominently at the end of the new hit movie, “Selma,” and Mrs. Liuzzo was also portrayed by actress Tara Ochs briefly in other scenes related to the march.
 
While Mrs. Liuzzo was unable to complete her journey back to Selma that tragic night after she was shot by a group of men who were later identified as Ku Klux Klansmen, her daughters will complete the trip back to the small town in her honor.
 
It is a trip they say they are honored to take because of their mother’s work to help with civil rights for black Americans.
 
“We know she changed the world, and it took a lot of sacrifice, and we are very proud of her,” said Ms. Prado over the telephone last week.
 
Ms. Prado, who now lives in Northeast Tennessee, spoke about her mother’s legacy on Monday at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tenn., and will later head to Selma with her sister.
 
On the way, they will likely pass through or near Chattanooga, a city that also played an important role in the life of Mrs. Liuzzo. Although little publicized over the years whenever Mrs. Liuzzo is remembered on civil rights anniversaries or at other times, the Scenic City was where she spent a number of her early childhood and teen-age years in the 1930s and early ‘40s.
 
Her experiences in Chattanooga may have even helped shape her outlook on life toward helping those less fortunate.
 
Her family roots also date back for a while. Descended from a Confederate Civil War soldier, William Robert Smith, who was from Tellico Plains, Tenn., and was captured at Vicksburg, she and her parents, Heber and Eva Wilson Gregg, moved to Chattanooga in the 1930s.
 
At the time, Mrs. Liuzzo’s, grandmother, Mrs. Mary Amanda Smith Gregg, the widow of the Rev. Roby Gregg, was living at 3104 Riverside Drive.
 
Mrs. Liuzzo’s parents had moved to Chattanooga after her father, a World War I veteran, had been injured in a coal mining accident and was unable to work.
 
The Greggs also had another daughter, Rosemary, who was born in 1930 and still survives along with all five of Mrs. Liuzzo’s children who lived to adulthood.
 
The old city directories on file at the library give some glimpses into Mrs. Liuzzo’s and her family’s lives at this time, perhaps a little more than just addresses and employment history. Although the family could perhaps have been living with Mrs. Liuzzo’s grandmother, they are not listed in the Chattanooga city directories until the mid-1930s.
  
In 1937, they are listed as living at 925 E. Main St., with Eva working at the Wesley Community Center’s nursery.
 
The center was a complex of several homes and buildings in the area where Polk and 16th streets intersect near Main Street. The facility had been started by a group headed by Miriam Acree Brock, the wife of Brock Candy Co. official and U.S. Sen. William Brock Sr., as an outreach to the people in the impoverished Hell’s Half Acre.
 
The Methodist church-affiliated center later expanded to include an outreach to black children in the Grove Street area.
 
In 1967 it was merged with another outreach center started by pioneering black Methodist woman minister Sallie Crenshaw, and today the combined facility on West 38th Street is known as the Bethlehem Center.
 
Before her death on Oct. 4, 1969, Mrs. Brock, who was also active in bringing Bible teaching to the schools, was an active member of Trinity Methodist Church on McCallie Avenue. It later became part of Trinity-Woodmore United Methodist in Brainerd before closing in the 1990s, and the Trinity facility was used by the Salvation Army.
 
Until the family moved to Detroit during World War II, Eva Gregg continued to work at the Wesley Center.
 
So while it has been well documented that Mrs. Liuzzo began her sympathetic work toward blacks and the underprivileged while in Detroit, perhaps her love of equal treatment for all was first nurtured watching her mother work with those less fortunate in Chattanooga at the Wesley Community Center. This was, of course, despite the fact that she also witnessed the segregation that existed in Chattanooga at the time.
 
Regarding how her faith might have influenced her at this time, while Mrs. Liuzzo went on to join the Catholic church and, at the time of her death, the Unitarian Universalist Church, she was likely exposed to the Methodist Church in Chattanooga. This was not only through her mother’s work at the Wesley Community Center, but due to the fact that her grandmother, Mary Gregg, was a member of King Memorial Methodist Church at 2700 Taylor St., near Dodson Avenue in East Chattanooga.
 
The elder Mrs. Gregg died on May 29, 1955, in Mt. Vernon, Tenn., near the family’s historic roots in Monroe County and was buried in Chattanooga’s Greenwood Cemetery.  
 
Among the later places in Chattanooga where Mrs. Liuzzo’s parents lived while she was a child, they had moved to 1505 Polk St. by 1938 and to 2702 E. 39th St. by 1939. The family then lived at 1027 E. 16th St. and then at 3104 Riverside Drive, where the elder Mrs. Gregg lived.
 
Mrs. Liuzzo’s father, Heber, had an occupation mentioned only once – in 1939, when he was listed as a salesman. So perhaps he could have still been disabled or unable to do a lot of typical male work.
 
Interestingly, Mrs. Liuzzo – then Viola Gregg -- was listed as living on her own at 1601 S. Watkins St. in the 1940-43 city directories as a teenager. It is known that she was married briefly about this time, although the city directory makes no reference to that.
 
But the directory does show someone who was apparently an independent and self-supporting young teenager. And it was this same boldness that led her to come from Michigan to Alabama in 1965 to help with the march in Selma.
 
In 1940, during which year she turned only 15 on April 11, she was a cosmetics consultant for Luzier’s Inc.
 
In 1941, she was a waitress at Oscar’s – which then had locations at 201 W. 9th St. (now M.L. King Jr. Boulevard) and 2522 McCallie Ave., not on Highway 58 where the restaurant was located years later.
 
By 1942, she was working at the Standard-Coosa-Thatcher mill at the northwest corner of East 18th and South Watkins streets, just 100 yards or so from her home.
 
In 1943, the last year she is listed in the city directory, she was a waitress at Bob Green’s Restaurant, which was headed by Robert L. Green of 1810 Crestwood Drive and had locations at 905-07 Carter St., 719 Cherry St., and in Tyner.
 
She had graduated in 1937 from Eastside Junior High at a young age, according to a 1965 newspaper article. According to daughter Ms. Herrington, she also attended for a period St. Mary’s School in Sewanee. It was a girls’ school operated by the Episcopal Church and was the companion school to the St. Andrews and Sewanee boys’ prep schools before later mergers.
 
St. Mary’s was also a short distance from the liberal Highlander Folk School headed by Myles Horton, so perhaps Mrs. Liuzzo became familiar with the center’s labor and civil rights training programs while there. The more progressive Episcopal church may have also influenced her.
 
Whatever outlooks Mrs. Liuzzo developed toward the world and civil rights while in the Chattanooga area as a young teenager learning to be financially independent, they were well formulated by the time she made plans to go to Selma in March 1965.
 
The family had moved to Michigan after Eva Gregg went to work in a factory during World War II by securing a “Rosie the Riveter” type of job.
 
A large influence on Mrs. Liuzzo’s views on civil rights after she moved was a black Detroit friend, Sarah Evans. Mrs. Liuzzo went on to become a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
 
As the various civil rights workers tried to help minorities in Selma gain the right to vote without being hindered by the challenging written tests or poll taxes, they tried to march on March 7. It was violently turned back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a happening referred to as Bloody Sunday.
 
It was a structure built in 1940 and named for the Confederate Civil War general, who in November 1863 had fought at both Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, the latter just a few feet from Mrs. Liuzzo’s future South Watkins Street home.
 
Mrs. Liuzzo was one of a number of white people who were outraged seeing scenes of the violence toward the blacks and went down to Selma to volunteer and help organize a successful march.
 
Following a court ruling, a march was successfully staged from March 21-25, culminating with a rally in front of the state capitol in Montgomery.
 
It was considered very much a watershed, victorious and happy moment in the civil rights movement.
 
Unfortunately, during the night of the 25th, as many were still relishing the glow of the event, word came that Mrs. Liuzzo had been shot and killed while she was driving back to Selma with a 19-year-old black fellow volunteer named Leroy Moton.
 
Chattanoogans were reminded that Mrs. Liuzzo had been a resident of Chattanooga with a Page 1 story by reporter Gaines Hobbs in the March 26 Chattanooga News-Free Press.
 
He interviewed her parents, who by 1965 were back in the area living at 61 Polk Circle in Fort Oglethorpe.
 
They told Mr. Hobbs that they had last talked with their daughter about two weeks earlier, but did not know she planned to go to Selma at the time.
 
“I had her birthday card in a drawer here ready to mail,” said Mrs. Gregg, who was photographed with her husband by Free Press photographer George Moody.
 
One of Mrs. Liuzzo’s daughters, Mary Johnson, then 17 years old, was living in Ringgold, Ga., in 1965 and worked at Hutcheson Memorial Hospital.
 
Mrs. Liuzzo was said to be the only white woman to die in violence related to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but she was actually the third person killed in the events connected to the Selma march. On Feb. 18, Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot to death following a demonstration in nearby Marion, Ala., while the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, died on March 11 after being severely beaten after coming South as a fellow supporter.
 
Mrs. Liuzzo’s funeral was attended by a number of well-known people, including Dr. King and Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, who had been convicted of jury bribery charges in Chattanooga in 1964 but was out on appeal.
 
Mrs. Liuzzo was laid to rest at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Mich.
 
Hours after the shooting, four Ku Klux Klansmen – Gary Rowe, Collie Wilkins, Eugene Thomas and William Eaton – were arrested. Mr. Rowe was later given immunity as an FBI informant, but a state trial failed to convict the other three. However, federal gun charges were later brought against them. Mr. Eaton died before being tried and the other two eventually ended up with short stays in prison.
 
Ms. Prado was only 6 years old when her mother died, and said over the phone last week that she has spent much of her adult life trying to remind people of her mother’s positive legacy. Part of the reason, she said, is that the family later learned that the FBI had tried to smear in an inaccurate way her mother’s reputation regarding her political leanings and personal life.
 
“It’s been a struggle of 50 years to bring back the mother we know and love and not the creature (former FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover created,” she said, adding that the family had also filed a civil lawsuit against the FBI.
 
For Ms. Prado, her own life has been marked greatly by the tragedy that befell her mother.
 
As a young child in Detroit before the shooting, she remembers happy times. Her mother, she said, was a loving person who tried to celebrate holidays in a special manner and take her children to hear the symphony orchestra or look for unique rocks, a hobby Mrs. Liuzzo had developed in Chattanooga.
 
As an example of celebrating the holidays, Ms. Prado said her mother was proud of her Irish roots and colored all the food green on St. Patrick’s Day.
 
She also remembers going to a cemetery with her mother and being afraid. But her mother, who had lost three children at birth, told her she had nothing to fear, that the spirits of the dead people leave their bodies.
 
“She said it is the people who are living you have to be afraid of,” Ms. Prado recalled. “She taught me more in six years than a lot of kids learn in a lifetime.”
 
But the pleasantries of life changed after the 1965 killing, her daughter said, adding that, almost immediately, nothing was ever the same again.
 
For example, while Mrs. Liuzzo’s efforts to aid the cause by going to Selma were called admirable and courageous by many at the time, and her death may have even helped push forward the passage of the voting rights act, some at the time also criticized her actions.
            
As a result, her family was later the target of the negativism, Ms. Prado said.
 
“Even though we were in Detroit, we had bricks thrown through the window and a cross burned in our yard,” she said, adding that they also received stacks of hate mail. “It was not an easy time.
 
“It pretty much tore our family apart.”
 
Ms. Prado’s father, Anthony Liuzzo, a Teamsters union business agent, never recovered emotionally and died 13 years later of a broken heart, his daughter said.
 
Ms. Herrington, Liuzzo’s daughter from a previous marriage, said that although her mother died young and tragically, she left behind a strong legacy of being colorblind and non-judgmental. That attitude is also apparent in Mrs. Liuzzo’s children and her grandchildren, Ms. Herrington said.
 
“She never talked down to kids,” Ms. Herrington said, adding that she was a favorite mother in her neighborhood. “She talked to our level and always educated us.”
 
Ms. Herrington also remembered coming with her mother down to Chattanooga and Tennessee on a passenger train to visit family.
 
She added that she was fortunate she had her mother until she was 18 years old, and feels for Ms. Prado losing her at age 6.
 
“We still miss Mom so much,” she said.
 
Ms. Herrington, who lives in California, has been visiting with her sister and was scheduled to attend the Walters State event.
 
At the Selma 50th anniversary event, their mother is scheduled to be saluted and further memorialized. And that will likely bring further closure for Ms. Prado, who has never stopped trying to tell everyone how good a person her mother was.
 
“It’s been hard to relive 50 years, but it’s been worth it,” she said.
 
In Chattanooga, few reminders of the slain civil rights worker remain today. Of her parents’ homes, most are gone. A home at 2702 E. 39th St. in East Lake remains, although it appears to be a newer or rebuilt structure. And the only home remaining where multiple generations of the Gregg family lived in the 3100 block of Riverside Drive behind Amnicola Highway is another updated home connected to an industrial-like facility now for sale.
 
The original buildings at 16th and Polk streets, where the Wesley Community Center was and where the family lived for a period, are gone, although some older trees still grace the former yards.
 
But the modest, bungalow-style home at 1601 S. Watkins St., where Mrs. Liuzzo lived as a teen-ager, is still there, just a few feet from the empty Standard-Coosa-Thatcher mill where she once worked.
 
Perhaps from here, where the front porch faces the rising sun, she first nurtured her long-term dream that a new dawn should come as well regarding better treatment of all people in America.
 
Fifty years after she left this Earth and more than 70 years after she left Chattanooga, that dream is now a reality.
 
Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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