WSU, campus leaders, students honor civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo with honarary degree, scholarship and ceremony

Viola Liuzzo was a civil rights activist who was not only a Detroiter, but also a student at Wayne State Nursing School.

On March 25, 1965, Liuzzo was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after marching for the Voting Rights Act in Selma, Alabama.

WSU honored the fifty-year anniversary of her death and her ninetieth birthday with an honorary law degree ceremony on April 10. Liuzzo’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchild attended the ceremony.

“Mrs. Liuzzo, on the outside, appeared to be a humble Wayne State University college student who was a mother of five children,” Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said during the ceremony. “However, on the inside, she faced down whatever fear she may have had to drive to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the civil rights protest. Her courage represents what is the best of Detroit. She is truly a Detroit hero.”

WSU also named a College of Nursing scholarship after her, dedicated a tree and memorial plaque to her in Wayne Law’s Partrich Auditorium courtyard and hosted a screening of the “Home of the Brave” documentary, which recounts Liuzzo’s life and murder.

WSU professor and head of the journalism department Jack Lessenberry worked on the documentary as a historical consultant. He said Liuzzo should be remembered for risking her life and changing history with her own blood in 1965.

“It’s very clear that her murder really helped the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that summer,” he said. “All of [a] sudden, you have hundreds of thousands of blacks who were able to vote for the first time, and this caused white politicians like George Wallace to sort of moderate their behavior and their language and openly court black votes in order to win.”

WSU Governor Kim Trent said that although Liuzzo was white, she felt compelled to stand against injustice towards African Americans side by side with Martin Luther King Jr.

“She wasn’t black, she wasn’t Southern, but she was horrified by the bloodshed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Trent said. “She realized it wasn’t enough to just be horrified. Mrs. Liuzzo knew that she had to do something.”

On the day of the ceremony, Governor Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) also named April 11 “Viola Liuzzo Day” to commemorate her birthday.

The Honorary Degree Awarded Posthumously

In 2005, when Trent was the president of the Organization of Black Alumni, she petitioned WSU to award Liuzzo an honorary degree when the U.S. Congress was reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act at the time. Trent did not see Liuzzo honored with a law degree until ten years later.

“I felt pretty dejected when the Board of Governors said no at the time,” Trent said. “The Organization of Black Alumni brought (Viola’s) daughter, Penny Herrington, to Detroit and gave Mrs. Liuzzo an award. After 2005, that was pretty much it, because they told us that (the degree) was not going to happen.”

Ten years later, after Trent saw the movie ‘Selma’ in January 2015, she said it didn’t really do justice to Liuzzo’s story.

“She was kind of an ancillary character in that movie,” Trent said. “She’s still not really getting the credit she deserves.”

Trent said she then planned to convince the governors, this time her colleagues, to reconsider the honorary degree at their upcoming meeting last February. She said she thought she was going to need a complete presentation on Liuzzo to convince the board, but  the governors voted in favor unanimously.

“It was the most anti-climatic thing ever,” Trent said. “I said ‘We should do this,’ and I gave a brief presentation and they just said ‘Yeah, we should do that, you’re right.’”

Trent said with Liuzzo’s ninetieth birthday on April 11, the fiftieth anniversary of her death and the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, everything came full circle.

“The timing was just really perfect,” Trent said. “It happened exactly when it was supposed to happen.”

The Viola Liuzzo College of Nursing Scholarship

WSU’s College of Nursing named a scholarship after Liuzzo for undergraduate nursing students.

“Ideally, we would like the scholarship to go to someone who shares her values and her commitment to social justice,” Trent said.

Laurie Lauzon Clabo, dean of the College of Nursing, said this scholarship will allow Viola’s values to live on through nursing students who espouse her values in their profession.

“We will always honor her legacy by rewarding a particularly deserving student with a scholarship in her name,” Clabo said.

During the ceremony, Wilson said Liuzzo is a role model not only for yesterday’s students, but also for today’s students.

“Her bravery was breathtaking. Her passion for equality is inspiring,” Wilson said.

Donations were accepted at the “Home of the Brave” screening to support the College of Nursing’s newly established Viola Liuzzo Scholarship Fund, according to a WSU media advisory.

“The Home of the Brave” Documentary Screening

The Sister 2 Sister student organization hosted a screening of the Viola Liuzzo documentary titled “Home of the Brave” on April 9.

Sister 2 Sister President Jamilah Jackson said the student organization decided to honor Liuzzo and her family just before the fifty-year anniversary of her death and her ninetieth birthday.

“Sister 2 Sister is all about women empowerment and pushing women to be the best that they can be,” Jackson said. “What better way to honor such an amazing woman?”

In 1999, director Paula di Florio began working on the documentary. The film recounted Liuzzo’s life until she was murdered in 1965. It also depicted the struggles her children encountered decades later while separating the truth of their mother’s murder from the smear campaign that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initiated.

Lessenberry said Liuzzo’s decision to travel to Selma was brave and courageous.

“Mississippi, and to some extent, Alabama, were fundamentally terrorist states, where you could be killed just for being black and for trying to help blacks to register to vote,” he said.

Lessenberry explained the FBI’s mentality towards Liuzzo’s murder at the time.

“When they took Viola’s body to the morgue, the first thing they did was put a swab in her vagina to see if she’d been having sex, because the rumor was she went down there to have sex with black men,” he said. “And there was nothing of the kind going on.”

A question and answer session with WSU professors Melba Boyd and David Goldberg, Liuzzo’s son Anthony Liuzzo and her daughters, Penny Liuzzo-Herrington and Sally Liuzzo-Prado, followed the screening. Her children felt the documentary gave them a way to tell their story.

“For me, it helped the healing process,” said Liuzzo’s son Anthony. “I can hear a song on the radio that was a hit when my mother was murdered, and I get choked up. It still affects me to this day.”

Prado said the story isn’t just her mother’s.

“A big part of the story was the disintegration of our family, and what happened afterwards at the hands of our government,” she said.

The Liuzzo family gave advice for young people today to stand up for what they believe in.

“Us in the sixties, you know, it wasn’t real popular to defend our mom back then,” Prado said. “But you know what? We did it, and we persevered, and now it’s finally paid off.”


Full article via The South End:


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