It was her face that got me.
The woman who gazed from the photo in the Gary Post Tribune in April 1965 was blond and girlishly glamorous, wearing dark — I assumed red — lipstick. To my young eyes, nothing about her face belonged in an article about civil rights, or could be remotely connected to the movement-inspired mayhem my family often saw on the TV news.
The face belonged to Viola Liuzzo, 39, a wife and mother of five who’d left her family in Detroit to drive to Alabama to march with Martin Luther King Jr. And now she was dead, shot after ferrying protesters in her car with a “Negro man,” as African Americans were referred to then. I couldn’t make sense of it. Didn’t Liuzzo know about the water hoses and German shepherds being unleashed on people crazy enough to demand equal rights? Hadn’t she seen the snarling white faces on TV, so monstrously contorted with rage that even young black kids like me had to wonder, “Why do they hate me?” Liuzzo’s concern for Negroes meant her children were now motherless, a fact that had to be as unthinkable for them as it would have been for me. Would they hate me, too?
I thought of four other kids — girls barely older than me, blown up in a Birmingham church bombing two years earlier though they couldn’t possibly have hurt anybody. I remembered the three young civil rights workers — two white and one black — buried in a Mississippi dirt pile the previous year. But they were men— people I expected to take risks.
Viola Liuzzo was a woman — and white. She was cute. She was a mom. Suddenly I knew the monsters could kill anyone. More shockingly, Liuzzo had voluntarily put herself in a position where she could be attacked, even killed, for helping people who looked like my family and me — people she didn’t even know. Her enormous sacrifice suggested there were people in this country far better than the newscasts suggested. And if a white mom with everything to live for would risk death for me, maybe I mattered more than even I had dared to imagine.
Just last month, five decades after her death, Liuzzo — the only white woman killed in the Civil Rights movement — was awarded the Fred L. Shuttlesworth award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on its 25th anniversary. Singer/activist Harry Belafonte and Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington Jr., also were honored.
Few doubt that our nation has evolved in ways the child I once was couldn’t have dreamed. Yet I can’t help noticing how .?.?. small some Americans are becoming, or how divided some leaders are encouraging us to be. Where’s the Christian compassion so many of us subscribe to, that Viola so clearly possessed? Consider what confronts today’s children of color on the news: homegrown Nazis, a president calling athletes “sons of bitches” for protesting police having less regard for their families than they do for white ones, and the Border Patrol seeking to deport a 10-year-old Mexican girl with cerebral palsy — who’d lived in Texas since she was 3 months old — immediately after emergency surgery. Do these kids feel hated? Are they as astounded as I was that a white person — think Heather Heyer, mowed down in Charlottesville — could die for supporting them?
None of that explains Liuzzo’s face in that newspaper. Countless terrific parents heard King’s call for Americans to join demonstrators in Alabama after the violence on “Bloody Sunday.” Most stayed safely home. In the mid 1960s, it was all but unthinkable for a white mother to answer the call, but over the years, Liuzzo’s name and sacrifice faded from view. Yet the memory of the effect of her photo never left me. So I was thrilled last year to meet Mary Lilleboe, 69, one of Liuzzo’s three daughters, at the March on Washington Film Festival in the District. Haltingly admitting her mom is among my heroes, I asked a question that long haunted me:
“Who was she?”
Lilleboe’s answer: Everything you’d want a mom — and a hero — to be. She and her siblings were only too happy to discuss their mother with me recently, “not as a martyr,” as eldest daughter Penny put it, “but as this wonderful human being who loved every living creature.”
Lilleboe was a 10th-grader in 1965. Her book report on “To Kill A Mockingbird” was in the car in which her mom died. The intolerance for suffering that had led Liuzzo to enroll in nursing classes made her acutely aware of black Americans’ feelings of invisibility. During a visit to a department store’s elaborate Christmasdisplay, she asked Lilleboe, then 13, how she’d feel if every Santa she saw was black instead of white. When Lilleboe was 16, Liuzzo asked her how she’d feel “if the magazines I loved never put pretty white girls on their covers.” The questions saddened Lilleboe, now 69, of Grants Pass, Ore., but offered “a glimpse into a world totally different than the one I was living in.”
By any measure, the life Liuzzo gave her children was an enviable one. The wife of a Teamsters business agent, she was the nature-loving mom, whose Tennessee roots inspired barefoot strolls and an insistence on exposing her kids to planetariums, rodeos, circuses and even watching their dog giving birth, so they’d appreciate the natural world. She was the caring mom who cured son Tony’s terror of the noisy trucks spraying pesticides on the neighborhood’s trees by visiting City Hall and arranging for him to ride in one. “I’m sitting on this big truck, helping [workers],” Tony, 62, of Milwaukee recalls. I was never afraid after that.”
She was the fun mom, says Penny, 71, of Irwin, Tenn., describing the night she and a friend watching a scary movie were terrified when Viola — wailing ghoulishly in a fright wig, greenish makeup and Tony’s black altar-boy robes — materialized from around a dark corner.
What possessed Liuzzo to respond to her husband’s assertion that civil rights “isn’t your fight,” with, “It’s everybody’s fight,” and to join the hundreds flooding Alabama to protest?
She’d only been there a week when, after shuttling weary marchers from Montgomery to Selma in her 1963 Oldsmobile with volunteer Leroy Moton, 19, a car full of Klansmen spied Liuzzo and her black, male passenger. The men fired into the car, striking Liuzzo twice in the head. Covered in her blood, Moton played dead, later testifying against the killers, three of whom were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Liuzzo’s instantaneous response to King’s appeal didn’t shock Lilleboe. “If Mom saw a wrong .?.?. she took action,” she explains. When a neighbor’s house burned down one Christmas eve, her mother pounded on the door of a toy store owner’s home, insisting he open his shop so she could buy presents for the displaced family.
Her empathy was so reflexive, Lilleboe wonders, “Was Mom born with it?” As a child in Chattanooga, Liuzzo despised how cruelly she and her sister Rose Mary were treated as poor kids living in one-room shacks — yet she couldn’t help noticing black kids were treated even worse. Lilleboe never forgot her mom’s grief when the baby Liuzzo was carrying was stillborn — and her outrage when her Catholic church refused to bury her infant because it wasn’t baptized. If her love was too deep to discriminate against a baby, Liuzzo reasoned, God’s had to be immeasurably deeper, so she left Catholicism. Viola’s best friend in the world was Sara Evans, a black restaurant worker whom Liuzzo asked to care for her kids if anything befell her. After Liuzzo’s death, Evans became the brood’s second mother, especially when their dad — devastated by his beloved wife’s murder — drank too much or retreated.
Evans wasn’t the only reason Viola’s kids didn’t resent black people after her death. How could they, asks Tony, when the loathing heaped upon them seemed similar to the bigotry black people endured? “The only thing racists hated worse than blacks were the whites helping them,” Lilleboe explains. Liuzzo’s children’s agony over losing their mom was deepened by death threats, a cross burned on their lawn and shots fired into their home. Their father finally hired armed guards to protect them. A seventh-grade counselor smacked Tony upside the head for lagging behind in school, shouting, “Your mother’s been dead long enough!” Sally, 59, who also lives in Irwin, will never forget her first day back to first grade after Liuzzo’s death. She’d worn her favorite, just-polished white saddle shoes. It was pouring rain, so when 6-year-old Sally saw the street lined with adults throwing rocks and shouting “N-lover’s daughter!” she attributed their anger to “the white polish from my shoes bleeding onto the floor.” They couldn’t possibly be referring to the mommy she missed.
There’s more. Hours after Liuzzo’s slaying, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began a smear campaign against the victim to divert attention from an inconvenient fact: an FBI informant known to have participated in Klan violence had been in the killers’ car and may even have participated in the slaying. Viola’s family endured Hoover’s claiming that cuts on their her arm from the car’s shattered window indicated “recent drug use” and that her proximity to Moton resembled “a necking party,” despite an autopsy revealing no traces of drugs in her system and indicating she hadn’t had sex recently before her death.
Yet there are many good memories. Though they never took him up on it, the Liuzzos were invited by King, and later his wife, Coretta, to spend Christmas with them for years after Viola’s passing. “He was so sweet,” Sally, 59, says of King, who before her mom’s funeral, told her, “One day you’ll understand your mom was a hero.”
Heroes, by their nature, are extraordinary. Yet Lilleboe sometimes wonders, “Why wasn’t everybody in Selma?” Like her siblings, she enjoys speaking to groups about Viola, always feeling wrapped in a blanket of love — especially from black Americans who still revere the martyr who was “a mother and a homemaker .?.?. instead of a leader, priest or organizer.” She particularly delights in visiting Alabama, despite her mother having been killed there. “Fifty-two years ago, the Klan thought they took my mother away,” she explains. “But she’s alive there, as are all the martyrs who fought that fight. I feel them on the streets they walked.”
Many historians ascribe the speed with which the Voting Rights Act passed on Aug. 6, 1965 — Sally’s seventh birthday — to national outrage over a white woman being slain rather than another dispensable Negro — like, say, Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Army veteran whose 1965 shooting during a demonstration incensed Liuzzo. My own esteem for Liuzzo’s sacrifice in no way compromised my awe for every black protester. Yet I can’t help marveling at people with no discernible dog in a fight who jump in with both feet. It’s too easy, shrugging, “Not my fight.”
Today, cynical politicians are capitalizing on our self-absorption. They know how … human it is to dismiss horrors that don’t touch us personally; to give more importance to our surface differences than to explore the deeper commonalities Liuzzo never forgot. Yet many aren’t buying it. Democratic victories attributed to unusually high voter turnout in Virginia’s recent election and this week in Alabama reminded Lilleboe of her mother. “It’s really all about the vote,” she says. “That’s what everybody who worked and suffered and died in the movement was working for — not just to secure the vote, but to realize its power when it’s exercised.”
Decades later, I still love the girlish photo of Liuzzo that captivated me. Yet as a grown-up, I’m equally moved by an image shot the day before she died. In it, Viola is trudging with other marchers, her face older, careworn. Clasping her shoes, she’s as barefoot as the Tennessee schoolgirl who first noticed Negroes were treated even worse than she was.
There’s nothing girlish about Liuzzo’s set face. Changing the world takes grit, grinding effort, unrelenting faith. In the journal the Liuzzos obtained from the FBI, my childhood hero wrote, “I can’t sit back and watch my people suffer,” about folks who looked nothing like her. Explains Lilleboe: “She actually believed it when Christ said that the suffering and needy are our people. Mom saw all other human beings as her people.”
For that, I’ll always be grateful.
Donna Britt is a former Washington Post columnist who lives in Silver Spring, Md.
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated, an Associated Press analysis finds — an outcome at odds, critics say, with their goal of offering a better alternative to failing traditional public schools.
National enrollment data shows that charters are vastly over-represented among schools where minorities study in the most extreme racial isolation. As of school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily.
The problem: Those levels of segregation correspond with low achievement levels at schools of all kinds.
In the AP analysis of student achievement in the 42 states that have enacted charter school laws, along with the District of Columbia, the performance of students in charter schools varies widely. But schools that enroll 99 percent minorities — both charters and traditional public schools — on average have fewer students reaching state standards for proficiency in reading and math.
“Desegregation works. Nothing else does,” said Daniel Shulman, a Minnesota civil rights attorney. “There is no amount of money you can put into a segregated school that is going to make it equal.”
Shulman singled out charter schools for blame in a lawsuit that accuses the state of Minnesota of allowing racially segregated schools to proliferate, along with achievement gaps for minority students. Minority-owned charters have been allowed wrongly to recruit only minorities, he said, as others wrongly have focused on attracting whites.
Even some charter school officials acknowledge this is a concern. Nearly all the students at Milwaukee’s Bruce-Guadalupe Community School are Hispanic, and most speak little or no English when they begin elementary school. The school set out to serve Latinos, but it also decided against adding a high school in hopes that its students will go on to schools with more diversity.
“The beauty of our school is we’re 97 percent Latino,” said Pascual Rodriguez, the school’s principal. “The drawback is we’re 97 percent Latino … Well, what happens when they go off into the real world where you may be part of an institution that’s not 97 percent Latino?”
The charter school movement born a quarter of a century ago has thrived in large urban areas, where advocates say they often aim to serve students — by and large, minorities — who have been let down by their district schools. And on average, children in hyper-segregated charters do at least marginally better on tests than those in comparably segregated traditional schools.
For inner-city families with limited schooling options, the cultural homogeneity of some charters can boost their appeal as alternatives to traditional public schools that are sometimes seen as hostile environments.
They and other charter supporters insist that these are good schools, and dismiss concerns about racial balance.
Araseli Perez, a child of Mexican immigrants, sent her three children to Bruce-Guadalupe because she attended Milwaukee Public Schools and she wanted something different for her children. The schools in her family’s neighborhood are more diverse racially, but she said race was not a factor in her decision to enroll her children at the charter school five miles away.
“We’re just happy with the results,” she said. Her youngest child, Eleazar, now in seventh grade, is on the soccer team and plays the trumpet at the school, which boasts test scores and graduation rates above city averages. Perez said her children frequently came home from Bruce-Guadalupe showing off an award they won.
Her daughter Monica Perez, 23, went on to a private school and then college before becoming a teacher’s assistant.
“I don’t think I felt the impact of going to an all-Latino school until I went to high school,” Perez said. “When you go to a Latino school everyone is Roman Catholic and everyone knows the same stuff.”
There is growing debate over just how much racial integration matters. For decades after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, integration was held up as a key measure of progress for minorities, but desegregation efforts have stalled and racial imbalances are worsening in American schools. Charter schools have been championed by the U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and as the sector continues to grow it will have to contend with the question of whether separate can be equal.
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said today’s charters cannot be compared to schools from the Jim Crow era, when blacks were barred from certain schools.
“Modern schools of choice with high concentrations of students of color is a demonstration of parents choosing the best schools for their children, rooted in the belief that the school will meet their child’s educational needs, and often based on demonstrated student success,” Descalzi said. “This is not segregation.”
White teachers have traditionally outnumbered black and Hispanic teachers in Milwaukee schools, which have not been seen as places where Latino parents want to send their children, according to Enrique Figueroa, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a longtime advocate for Latino students in the city. He said he sees no problem with the concentrations of Latino students in some charters.
“I think the more an individual knows about his or her identity or culture, the better that individual is at asserting himself in any situation because you are strong about who you are,” he said.
Charter schools, which are funded publicly and run privately, enroll more than 2.7 million nationwide, a number that has tripled over the last decade. Meanwhile, as the number of non-charter schools holds steady in the U.S., charters account for nearly all the growth of schools where minorities face the most extreme racial isolation.
While 4 percent of traditional public schools are 99 percent minority, the figure is 17 percent for charters. In cities, where most charters are located, 25 percent of charters are over 99 percent nonwhite, compared to 10 percent for traditional schools.
School integration gains achieved over the second half of the last century have been reversed in many places over the last 20 years, and a growing number of schools educate students who are poor and mostly black or Hispanic, according to federal data. The resegregation has been blamed on the effects of charters and school choice, the lapse of court-ordered desegregation plans in many cities, and housing and economic trends.
The Obama administration and some states created programs to promote racial and ethnic diversity in charters, but they have been applied unevenly, said Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Penn State. School choice, she said, leads to stratification unless it is designed in a way to prevent it.
“Word spreads by networks that are segregated,” said Frankenberg, who has found that black, Latino and white students in Pennsylvania choose charters with higher racial isolation when they have options that are more diverse.
The options to promote diversity depend entirely on what is available under state law, according to Sonia Park, director of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, a 2-year-old network of 100 schools that are deliberately cultivating integration. Only some places have weighted lotteries, transportation budgets for charter students or the ability to draw students from urban and suburban districts.
Decades of research have shown that schools with high percentages of minority students historically have fewer resources, less experienced teachers and lower levels of achievement.
Like many other American cities, Milwaukee has seen an exodus of white students since a busing program in the 1970s. Whites now account for only 14 percent of the 78,500 students in the public school system. City schools often have one predominant ethnic group, and many charters are at the far end of that spectrum.
Despite successes at schools like Bruce-Guadalupe, charters with the highest levels of racial isolation rank among the worst.
Nationwide, about half of students reach state proficiency standards in traditional public schools, and on average charters are only a few percentage points behind. Among schools that are 99 percent minority, however, only about 20 percent reach proficiency levels at traditional public schools and about 30 percent do so at charters, according to the AP analysis.
At the Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, more than 98 percent of the 335 students are African-American and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than 20 percent of students score at state proficiency levels for reading and less than 25 percent do so for math. The principal, Alper Akyurek, acknowledges that the school has significant room to improve test scores, but so too do the neighborhood schools his students would be attending otherwise.
Akyurek said he is certain race is not the primary consideration of families coming to his charter school on the city’s impoverished north side.
“I think safety is No. 1,” he said.
Jamain Lee, 13, has seen his grades improve since he enrolled two years ago from a school where he was bullied and frequently got into fights. His mother, Alicia Lee, said teachers at the neighborhood school would stand by and even record fights. She is unconcerned about the lack of diversity.
“You focus on, ‘Is my child learning? Are they having fun learning? Do they want to go back when they come home?’” Alicia Lee said of her decision to enroll her four children in the charter school.
Howard Fuller, who was superintendent of Milwaukee schools from 1991 to 1995, rejects criticism of racially isolated charters. He says the imbalances reflect deep-rooted segregation, and it is unfair to put the burden on charters to pursue integration.
In a city where many black students live in poverty, and some reach high school not knowing how to read, he said there are other, more pressing problems.
“It’s a waste of time to talk about integration,” he said. “How do these kids get the best education possible?”
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed to this report. Fenn reported from New York and Melia from Hartford, Connecticut.
Only a few years ago, school desegregation was a topic confined to history books—a tumultuous chapter of the civil rights era, starting with Brown v. Board of Education and ending, ignominiously, with the backlash of white parents in the 1980s and ’90s. But over the past three years, thanks to the renewed efforts of advocates and researchers, a surprising resurgence has taken shape. Authors and activists are once again highlighting America’s failure to successfully integrate its schools as a root cause of educational inequality and a driving force behind the nation’s persistent racial divides.
As concerns over unresolved segregation have picked up steam, so too has recognition of the hard practical obstacles to educational integration. Is desegregation a feasible goal? Even some self-described integrationists voice skepticism—potentially slowing, or even derailing, momentum for integrated schools. History threatens to repeat itself, with frustrated advocates accepting segregation as inevitable and refocusing, as many did in the ’90s, only on providing better education in racially isolated environments. But this would be a mistake.
No obstacle to school desegregation is greater, or has been more frequently cited, than racially divided housing patterns. The basic issue is simple: Segregated neighborhoods tend to produce segregated schools. If most of a school district’s population is black or Hispanic, most of its schools probably will be too.
While the vast majority of Americans consider themselves unprejudiced, many of us unintentionally make snap judgments about people based on what we see—whether it’s race, age, gender, religion, sexuality, or disability. The Love Has No Labels campaign challenges us to open our eyes to our bias and prejudice and work to stop it in ourselves, our friends, our families, and our colleagues. Rethink your bias at http://www.lovehasnolabels.com