How one woman died defending racial equality

ATLANTA -- Fifty years ago, discrimination in public accommodations and federally assisted programs became illegal, as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that did not end the battle for racial equality.

Mary Lilleboe's mother, Viola Liuzzo, was a martyr of the civil rights movement.

"It's my Mom's picture and it says: 'Well behaved women rarely make history,'" says Mary.

The Detroit housewife and mother of five would become part of history.

"If she had something to say, she said it. If she thought something needed to be done, she did it and she saw 'Bloody Sunday.' She saw it and just had to do something about it," adds Mary.

On Sunday, March 7th, 1965, Alabama police beat 600 demonstrators as they marched for voting rights.

The pictures of the incident spurred Liuzzo to drive to Selma, Ala., and join the protestors.

As Liuzzo was driving marchers home, along a pitch-black country road, Ku Klux Klansman pulled up to her car and shot her to death.

Viola Liuzzo and one of her daughters. CBS News

She was 39-years-old. Her daughter Sally was only six.

"Dad looked at me and started screaming: 'Momma's dead. Momma's dead.' And that's how I found out. Nothing was ever the same again," says Sally.

Nothing was the same for Liuzzo's family, or for 19-year-old Leroy Moton, a passenger in her car.

Leroy says he thinks about that night "all the time."

Leroy Moton CBS News

"Someone just shot through the window. And all of a sudden, the car went off the road, glass started hitting me in the face," says Leroy.

Leroy says he realized Liuzzo was in real trouble "when I tried to wake her up. When I grab her by the arm and say 'miss, miss, miss.' You know, she didn't say a word."

After her death, there were racial taunts aimed at the Liuzzo family. They got hate mail. A cross was burned on their lawn.

At her school, Sally was jeered. "Grown-ups surrounded me and they started throwing rocks at me and they said, 'You're a nigger lover's baby.' Your Momma didn't love you," says Sally.

Liuzzo was the only white woman the Klan murdered during the civil rights movement.

"Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggles for justice. She was murdered by the enemies of justice," said President Johnson of her death.

Her death helped further the cause. Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Leroy says, "If Mrs. Liuzzo wasn't killed, we wouldn't have the Civil Rights Bill."

It took the death of a white woman to get the votes to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Sally says he mother's painful death was worth it. "I wouldn't change a thing. I mean it's been hard, I miss her. But I am so, so proud of her."

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.