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'Selma' Reminds Us Of Viola Liuzzo, Who Gave Her Life For Civil Rights

Actress Tara Ochs tells us the real story behind the person she portrayed.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, an event where Civil Rights activists were attacked by troops while trying to march peacefully for voting rights. Half a century ago, a white housewife in Michigan named Viola Liuzzo saw what was happening and joined the marchers, saying this was “everybody’s fight.” Her very on-hands involvement quickly made her a target and she was killed by the Ku Klux Klan.

The men who killed her received light punishments or no punishments at all, and her family was harassed for years to come. The Klan put a burning cross in their yard and Ladies' Home Journal asked their readers to vote on what a bad mother Liuzzo was for getting involved with civil rights instead of staying home.

People weren't just going after the family, though. After her death, lurid and fictional details about her sex life were also paraded through the papers to shame her and any other women who might consider becoming activists as well. These stories had been started by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man known for being hostile to the Civil Rights Movement. But because she was white, her death caught the public’s attention and made other white people realize they couldn’t turn their eyes away and pretend injustice wasn’t happening.

Liuzzo, like many others who gave their lives for the cause, is mostly unknown today. But her story is being resurrected in the Oscar-nominated film “Selma,” and Tara Ochs, the actress who plays her in the film, says the role has changed her life. MTV News spoke to Ochs on her way to the Selma commemoration events this weekend, where she planned to meet Liuzza’s family face-to-face for the first time.

NPR/Liuzzo Family

MTV: When researching your character, what surprised you about Viola’s life?

TARA OCHS: I didn’t know who Viola Liuzzo was when I first auditioned for the role. So I started from scratch and discovered she was a mother of five, 39-years-old, living in Detroit and she saw the footage of Bloody Sunday that was broadcast and was called to go to Selma and participate in the marches.

While she was there, she became very involved with the coordination of the events, as well as the participation. She didn’t just show up and walk on the bridge. She was there on the last day in Montgomery, and she was transporting marchers. At about 8 o’clock at night, she was followed by four white men in a car. They were all members of the Klu Klux Klan. They gunned her down.

She was in the car with a 19-year-old African-American man, Leroy Moton. He survived the attack, physically unharmed — emotionally it must have been horrifying. One of the men in the car [that attacked her] was a paid FBI informant named Gary Rowe.

One of the men passed before he served any time. Gary Rowe went into the Witness Protection Program. The two other men served relatively short sentences. They actually went to jail for a weapons charge as opposed to a murder charge.

The most surprising thing to me is that this woman, who was clearly a hero, was not treated as such and her family was not treated as such.

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MTV: As an activist who died, how was Viola treated the same or differently from activists who were male or African-American?

OCHS: Every martyr’s story is different. There were those who recognized her contributions, but at the same time women across the country had different opinions about whether or not she should have left her home or her family. In the South, she would have been considered a Northern agitator. It was not appreciated for Northerners to come into the South and become a part of the effort. So she wasn’t respected on many levels.

There are accounts of Dr. King being very responsible and supporting her family. Mary [her daughter] told me that for the Christmases following, Dr. King would invite Viola’s family to Christmas dinner.

MTV: I get the sense that because she was white, her death was able to reach the president, reach the news more than had she been a black activist. But on the other hand, because she was a woman, she got her name dragged through the dirt, whereas a male activist probably wouldn’t have had that happen.

OCHS: Exactly. I think you get the same sense that I do. Because she was white, and because Reverend James Reeb, who also lost his life in Selma, was also white, it was more shocking to the country at the time. One, because for so many it didn’t seem like a “white problem.” It was a “black problem.” To see a white person disagree with that sentiment, and get involved, and lose their life ... that was shocking. That brought a lot more attention, there’s no question. Viola’s death was a major reason why the Voting Rights Act passed.

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MTV: Viola is not well-known today. Why do you think so many activists in the Civil Rights Movement are not so well-known, even the ones who gave their lives?

OCHS: I think it speaks to perhaps a hole in the education system. It’s being addressed more now. I think it also speaks to an effort by certain factions who profane those who gave their lives to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a power struggle, and these activists were fighting against a very entrenched, wealthy group. Viola’s morality was brought into question in an effort to try to discourage that kind of activism. That’s part of why we need to resurrect these stories now and dig deeper and find the truth.

MTV: What does Viola teach us about the importance of being an ally to a cause that might not personally affect you, but you know matters?

OCHS: I think what Viola represents is something that we all know we have in us: a passion for humanity that goes beyond any definitions of race, gender, sexual orientation, social status. When people discover Viola for the first time through the film ["Selma"], they’re excited. They feel called to participate in a cause they previously thought they weren’t welcome in or that they didn’t belong to. Now they understand that we can all just be humanity.

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MTV: This month is the anniversary of the March on Selma and also Women’s History Month. How can we all take action for civil rights and women’s rights?

OCHS: I think it starts at a grassroots level. For me personally, I’ve looked into youth foundations mostly. I’m getting involved with the Freedom Foundation. And education. There are a lot of Civil Rights tours being offered now, and they change people’s lives. If you’re in Atlanta, the Center for Civil and Human Rights is an excellent place to start with.

Being in “Selma” has been a game-changer. It’s helped redefine what it means to be an actress. It’s expanding me from wanting to play roles in a film to wanting to create work that makes change. I’m excited to be a part of this, all of it.