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Remembering the Violas of Selma

By QuaWanna Bannarbie

Hate stuns me. How hate mobilizes people to act so violently stuns me. I have been watching several history films lately. I watched the 2014 historical drama film, “Selma,” for the very first time just a few days ago. The movie is the cinematic retelling of the events surrounding the demonstrations that took place at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. I watched “Selma” because I wanted my children to know Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian. I wanted them to remember their work.

I avoided watching the movie when it originally released, because I have a very hard time watching movies about the harsh treatment of my people. I have yet to watch “Harriet” or “12 Years a Slave.” I can never watch a movie for entertainment alone. Motion pictures set my imaginings in motion. Stories remain with me long after the credits are done. Two women from “Selma” remained on my mind days after I watched it. They share the same first name. Do you know Viola Jackson and Viola Liuzzo?

They were two mothers. They both responded to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for voting rights marches to achieve the right for black people to vote in Alabama. The two of them each made a great sacrifice in Selma.

Sadly, Ms. Viola Jackson is not well remembered. If you enter a Google search for more information about her, little information is there. She is most known for her relationship to Jimmie Lee Jackson. Her son was protecting his mother from the abuse of a state trooper during a voting rights protest when he was shot. He died from the bullet wound from that state trooper’s gun. Mr. Jackson gave his life for the cause of freedom, and I feel Viola’s life ended as well. Perhaps that is the reason we know little of her story. My imagination wanders to how proud she must have been of Jimmie Lee’s service in the U.S. Army and his involvement in the civil rights movement. As a military veteran myself, my heart breaks to know that her son came home from honorable service only to die at the hands of senseless violence. I am grateful for his sacrifice both on the front lines in uniform and the front lines in Selma.

I was astonished to realize my ignorance of Viola Liuzzo’s existence. Not only does Viola share her name with Viola Jackson and actress, Viola Davis, she also shares her age of death with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both she and Dr. King died at the age of 39. Although Viola Liuzzo preceded him in death, they were alike in that cause of death. Both killed by hatred. Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five, left her family in Detroit. She drove herself by way of her 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma, Ala., to join what she deemed “everybody’s fight for racial equality.” Hours after the group of demonstrators arrived in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965, achieving the goal of a march from Selma to Montgomery, the celebration for activist and working mother, Viola Liuzzo ended with two gunshots to her head. She was traveling with a young black man as she was shuttling marchers back to Selma in her own vehicle. A group of Klansmen spotted them and killed her.

As I learned of the Violas of Selma I was reminded of the 1998 biography of Congressman John Lewis, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” He describes women like these Violas in this way, “wives and mothers in their 40s and 50s, hardworking, humorous, no-nonsense, incredibly resilient women who had carried such an unimaginable weight through their own lives and had been through so much unspeakable hell that there was nothing left on this earth for them to be afraid of — who showed us the way to mobilize in the towns and communities where they lived.” To wives and mothers today and those who love them, remember Viola Liuzzo and Viola Jackson. I pray that we will have as much resilience. Now that we know who they are, never lose sight of the birthing pains they endured to deliver the rebirth of such a stubborn nation where our hatred stuns us.

QuaWanna Bannarbie is an adjunct professor of nonprofit leadership and management with Indiana Wesleyan University, National and Global. Connect with her via iamquawanna@thebiggerme.net.