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Detroit woman's murder led to the law that was undone by the Supreme Court


You know by now that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act yesterday. But what you may not know is this: That act was passed by Congress back in 1965 because a white woman from Detroit gave her life in the struggle for civil rights.

Viola Liuzzo was a 39-year-old mother of five and part time Wayne State student then. She was watching TV one afternoon in March when she saw police in Selma, Alabama attack peaceful civil rights demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They clubbed them, beat them, and used vicious police dogs against them. Liuzzo was outraged.

Seven weeks later, she was in Alabama, helping drive exhausted people home after the famous Selma to Montgomery march, which was all about winning black Americans the right to vote. Later that evening, she was followed and chased by a car full of Klansmen, one of them an FBI informant. They drew alongside her vehicle, and shot her to death.

That provoked national outrage. Lyndon Johnson later said that if it hadn’t been for her death, he didn’t think Congress would have passed the Voting Rights Act, which placed nine states, mostly in the South, under federal oversight to make sure equal voting rights were universal.  Momentous change came, virtually overnight.

Within a few years, there were hundreds of thousands of registered black voters where there had been none before. Then there were hundreds of black elected officials.

Virginia eventually elected a black governor. Mississippi, a black congressman. Viola Liuzzo’s children lived to see the day in which some southern states voted for a black president.

Then yesterday, five Supreme Court justices voted to strike this law down. They didn’t really question the fact that the Voting Rights Act was needed back in the 1960s.

But they said that times have changed. Chief Justice John Roberts correctly noted that the act is based on data that is decades old. The justices invited Congress to try and write a new Voting Rights Act whose protections address today’s injustices.

That may sound reasonable. Indeed, some of the contortions legislatures go through to preserve majority black Congressional districts are outdated, even absurd. But the justices have to know that there are still abuses of citizens’ voting rights. And they certainly know getting a new law passed by today’s ideologically polarized Congress would be virtually impossible.

Dean Robb is an 89-year-old lawyer who represented Viola Liuzzo’s family when they unsuccessfully sued the federal government in connection with her death. Ironically, for the last week he has been with a delegation of Michigan high school kids who are traveling in the South. Today, they first visited her murder site.

Then, Dean told me last night, “As we were marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge celebrating Viola Liuzzo’s life, Roberts’ gang of five was undoing Viola’s real monument. How ironic.”

There are those who say her real monument is the fact that millions who the Voting Rights Act allowed to become voters helped elect America’s first Black President five years ago.

After yesterday’s decision, there are those who wonder, whether there will ever be another one. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan. 

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