Making the ultimate sacrifice for equality

Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe searches for words strong enough to express her feelings.

"This is an unbelievable completion in the lives of all the people who have worked and sacrificed for civil rights," says the Grants Pass resident. "To be able to cast a vote in this election, to be able to live to see this ... ."

She pauses, then begins again.

"It's a validation of their lives," she continues. "To have been there in 1965 and to live to see this day ... it's close to a miracle. Change usually takes more than a lifetime, but it has really happened."

She is, of course, talking about the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States.

Lilleboe, 61, is not black. Yet she knows more than most the humiliation, pain and suffering minorities have endured over the decades.

And she knows how it feels for a family to give its most cherished possession so others can live free.

Her mother was Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a civil-rights advocate murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan on March 25, 1965, near Selma, Ala. She was 39 when she was gunned down.

Viola Liuzzo was the only white woman killed in America's civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. She had just participated in the historic voting-rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. that began March 21 in Selma and ended at the capitol building in Montgomery, Ala.

She had answered the call from King for action after a civil-rights march on March 7 of that year ended with Alabama state troopers beating participants bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. The civil-rights leader called out to the nation to join in a second march to deliver a petition to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, demanding voting rights for all.

Hailing from Detroit, the mother of five and wife of a Teamsters official had the audacity to allow a black teenage male ride with her in her car. They were ferrying marchers to the airport the night she was shot.

The national outrage caused by her brutal death has been cited by civil-rights historians as one of the turning points in the battle to win equality for all Americans.

The day after she was shot, President Lyndon B. Johnson called Liuzzo's husband — Mary Lilleboe's stepfather — to express his sympathy.

"I don't think she died in vain because this is going to be a battle, all out as far as I'm concerned," LBJ told him.

"My wife died for a sacred battle, the rights of humanity," her husband replied. "She took a quote from Abraham Lincoln that all men are created equal, and that's the way she believed."

King, speaking at San Francisco's Grace Episcopal Cathedral on March 28, 1965, said of Liuzzo, "If physical death is the price some must pay to save us and our white brothers from eternal death of the spirit, then no sacrifice could be more redemptive." He attended her funeral in Detroit.

None of the KKK members were convicted of murder. Nor did the bigots and racists let her rest in peace. They accused her of being a communist, a drug user and being sexually involved with civil-rights activists, all of which was nonsense.

Back in Detroit, garbage was thrown at the family's house, a cross was burned on their lawn and letter delivery stopped because of the heavy volume of hate mail.

But Lilleboe, who was 17 when her mother was murdered, will never forget the mother who not only tried to right social wrongs but also left fond memories with her children of taking them hiking, rock hunting, antiquing and berry picking.

"I am enormously proud of her," she says, later adding, "the people in 1965 were real American patriots who were there to defend and protect our Constitution. They were people who loved America, who wanted her to be true to her promises."

Mary has created a powerful slide show on YouTube, appropriately titled "KKK defeated by Civil Rights Martyrs." But be warned: there is a graphic photograph of her mother after she was shot.

"I wanted to make a point about the cost of the sacrifices that brought us to where we are today," her daughter explains.

After reading Obama's book, "Audacity of Hope," she was inspired by his words and began following his career.

Two years ago, she and several members of her family went to Selma to participate in an anniversary march across the bridge. Then-U.S. Sen. Obama also participated, and he pushed one elderly civil-rights activist in a wheelchair the entire distance.

"As the march was breaking up, Obama walked by," she recalls. "My aunt told him that Viola was her sister and that I was her daughter. He stopped and said, 'I have to give both of you a hug. If it wasn't for people like her we wouldn't be here today.' It wasn't a campaign speech. He meant what he said."

With that, he hugged both of them.

"I personally thought that feeling we had back in 1965 of knowing something was wrong and willing to put a stop to it had disappeared," she says. "Obama has ignited that feeling again."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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