8:14 PM, May 10, 2013 By Bill Laitner Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
Viola Liuzzo was a homemaker and mother of five children when she suddenly told her husband in 1965 that she was heading south to register black Southerners to vote during the civil rights movement.
Liuzzo, who paid for her idealism with her life at the hands of gunfire from Ku Klux Klan members in Alabama, was among three civil rights icons who were honored Friday in Detroit.
The 15th annual Ford Freedom Award, held at the Max M. Fisher Music Center next to Orchestra Hall, recognized Liuzzo with a special Humanitarian Award, along with Johnnie Carr, who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott with her childhood friend, Rosa Parks.
The event raises more than $200,000 for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, said Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the museum.
“This event let’s us touch and hear history,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for the Ford Motor Company Fund.
The Ford Freedom Award also awarded scholarships to children from across Michigan who entered an essay contest about what it takes to be a “quiet hero” working for justice and equality.
When Liuzzo, 39, abruptly called her husband to say she was she was driving their 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma, Ala., then the heart of the nation’s civil rights struggle, “at the time people asked me, ‘what would make this woman leave her children like that,’ ” said Dorothy Aldridge, 70, of Detroit, who was working then for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
“But she’d watched television like the rest of us, and saw the tear gas in Selma, the horses running over children in March of 1965, and that must’ve moved her,” Aldridge said. “I’ve always said we should lift up and illuminate what she did,” Aldridge said.
Liuzzo’s daughter, Sally Liuzzo-Prado, accepted the award Friday.
Liuzzo-Prado, who was 6 when her mother died, said she was grateful to see her mother honored after “many, many years when she was left out — she was forgotten.”
Carr, who died in 2008 in 97, was an early activist in Montgomery, helping to spur the career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and succeeding him as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group that fostered integration without confrontation, said Dianne Thomas with the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. At Friday’s event, Carr was named the posthumous Ford Freedom Honoree.
This is an undated photo of Viola Gregg Liuzzo who was slain in Alabama in 1965. (AP Photo) / Associated Press
The Ford Freedom Award’s Scholar designation was awarded to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was among the demonstrators attacked by the Alabama State Police during a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
“What Johnnie Carr, Viola Liuzzo, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King did, we see today the results,” Lewis said before the awards dinner. “To people who say, nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes. We have a different country now, and a better country.”