I grew up pretty hard right politically. My world view was shaped largely by John Wayne movies. Grade-school pals were awed when I showed up in class with the latest military paraphernalia my brother-in-law had sent from wherever he was stationed. I had a model B-52 bomber, and I used to pretend I was carpet-bombing Vietnam. My parents were acquainted with Phyllis Schlafly, the godmother of the Far Right who led the fight to stop the Equal Rights Amendment. In the late 60s, my father took to keeping a .38 caliber Colt Police Special in the night table next to his bed in case a carload of black men showed up at our door in the middle of the night. In 8th grade civics class—which included an anti-communism unit—I raucously defended Barry Goldwater. In the fall of my senior year in high school, I was leafleting for Richard Nixon. I served a term as vice-president of my college’s Young Republicans and was an ROTC cadet.
But while all this was happening on the outside, slow change was working on the inside, beginning in Sunday school on March 28, 1965.
Three days earlier, a few hours after Dr. Martin Luther King had delivered his
“How Long? Not Long!” speech at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, a Detroit housewife, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed by a group of Klansmen as she was giving one of the marchers a ride. She had come down to Alabama after seeing the violence at the Edmund Pettus bridge.
Mrs. Liuzzo’s family paid a terrible price for her sacrifice. J. Edgar Hoover orchestrated a public smear campaign against her, in part, as it turned out, to protect an informant in the Klan who had been one of the group who’d ambushed her. Hate mail flooded the Liuzzo family home. Crosses were burned on their lawn. People hurled insults and rocks at her children on their way to school. Mr. Liuzzo had to hire guards to protect the family. The psychological and emotional toll on them was unbelievable.
The southern Illinois town where I lived could not, at that time, have been characterized as enlightened on racial issues, and, frankly, a bit of that darkness had rubbed off on me. The community generally held the same opinion as the magazine A Ladies’ Home Journal, which asked what kind of woman would leave her family for a civil rights demonstration and suggested she had, essentially, gotten what she deserved. Fifty-five percent of the Journal’s readers agreed.
That Sunday, at the 12th Street Presbyterian Church, our teacher, Mrs. Lewis, talked about what had happened in Alabama and about Mrs. Liuzzo’s murder. Then she said, “A lot of people are saying, ‘how could she go there, how could she do that?’ but, if you’re a Christian, how could you not?”
I was stunned. I knew Mrs. Lewis some. She was the secretary at my junior high school, and we’d become kind of friends. But I had no idea she’d say something like that. It also got me to thinking, a lot, and that started a process of change that has lasted the rest of my life. More lessons, some of them pretty hard ones, followed. I thought long and hard about the differences between what I had been taught to believe and what I saw happening around me, about how I had behaved towards my fellow men and women, about right and wrong. I gradually grew up and into a progressive.
In the process of thinking about Mrs. Lewis and writing this commentary, I searched for her on the internet and discovered she passed away just last month. I regret I never got around to telling her what she did for me. But, Mrs. Lewis, if you can hear me, thank you.
To Mrs. Liuzzo, deep thanks as well, for what you did for others and, in a very small way by comparison, for me. You and Mrs. Lewis made me a better man.