Viola Gregg Liuzzo was killed in 1965 shortly after participating in the historic Voting Rights March headed by Dr. Martin Luther King in Montgomery Alabama . She was killed in a car on a deserted highway while driving between Selma and Montgomery with a black teenage boy as a passenger. Liuzzo was shot in the head by one of four riders in another car who were active members of the Klu Klux Klan; that is, all except one. That person was an agent of the FBI.
So starts the chilling story of one woman’s tragic contribution to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. The FBI agent in the car of racist murderers was an informant planted to gather information on the KKK. That much we know. What we don’t know is his part in the shooting and the FBI’s motives in a vicious smear campaign conducted against the victim after her murder.
The racial protests and accompanying reactionary activity of the 1960s remain to this day a hallmark of civil disobedience and just plain criminality. In was a time when American politics overflowed into the streets of cities across the land, and blood was spilled. Amongst the most virulent of the pro-violence political extremists were the members of the Klu Klux Klan. “Home of the Brave” not only examines the story of the death of Viola Liuzzo at the hands of the KKK, it also examines the FBI’s involvement surrounding the protests and the overview, if any, that American citizens had of their activities.
The official explanation that the FBI agent was planted in the KKK organization to gather information is not disputed. But after the killing, disquieting reports emerged that the FBI agent was not only very courageous and very good at the dangerous job he had undertaken, but he was prone to violence himself. There is evidence that he was not entirely acting when he joined with his KKK assignees in beating up hapless blacks and white northern “nigger lovers” who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There is a definite lack of evidence with regard to how much control the FBI actually had over the planted agent. Even worse, there is a definite lack of standards regarding how far the agent was allowed to go in the pursuit of justice. The events after the murder are a mish-mash of judicial misconduct. In less than 24 hours after the killing, the FBI went public with the story about their agent in the murder vehicle. They announced that the three killers, including the one identified as the trigger-man, had been identified. The three were released on the own recognizance and the prosecution lapsed.
The only innocent witness to the crime, the black teenage passenger in the car, made two short statements and disappeared for decades before he resurfaced. Forensic experts pointed to the blood on the car and claimed the car could not have been moving when the shots were fired. The angle of the bullets into Viola Liuzzo’s skull was from a high point downward; not from the vantage point of a car next to the victim’s vehicle.
Compounding the slip-shod investigation and the disappearance of the only non-guilty witness was the smear campaign conducted against Liuzzo after her death; apparently conducted to draw attention away from the FBI presence in the killing and make sure that the nation did not seize on Liuzzo as a martyred hero. Stories immediately appeared in KKK organs about how the mother of five was sleeping with countless black men and engaging in drunken orgies and crazed living. The fact that such stories were published by the KKK is entirely understandable; even expected. What is troubling is the further report that such information was apparently leaked by the FBI in the course of their amassing a huge dossier on Liuzzo. The dossier the FBI assembled on Liuzzo was larger than the entire file assembled on the KKK up to the time of the murder.
There was something about what happened to Liuzzo that the FBI did not want to get out. Coincidentally to the release of the smear stories about Liuzzo was the release of her husband’s reputed position as a highly placed confidant to none other than James Hoffa, the notorious Teamsters chieftain charged at the time with a string of organized crime related rackets charges. Hoffa and the Teamsters were the sworn enemies of the White House, the FBI and attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach.
What we also know is then President Lyndon Johnson was very concerned about the murder, personally participated in its investigation, and used the murder to get the final push he needed to get the historic Voters Rights Act through Congress. So, in the end, everyone was happy–except for Viola Liuzzo, her five motherless children, her widowed husband and her friends and family. And President Johnson had made as few enemies as possible within the violence-prone KKK, three members of which should have been executed for the death of Liuzzo, but who were, instead, praised at the next KKK rally in the area.
“Home of the Brave” is told in the words of Viola Liuzzo’s family; mainly the one son who is still speaking to the world and her daughters. The movie is light on actual research, which is understandable considering the FBI has been able to destroy what they liked in the three decades since the killing, but the void is filled with repeated family perspectives on Viola and her death that are predictable and repetitive. Admittedly a traumatic event for the family, director Paola di Florio was not able to keep them from using the movie as a bully pulpit for their personal beliefs, which are half-baked at best.
An apparently accurate story about a failure of our government to abide by morality first, “Home of the Brave” could have been more articulate in asking questions relating to the government participating in murders in order to indict killers. Are the FBI and CIA under civilian control or not? How can they be under control when so much of what they do is secret based on “national security?” Was J. Edgar Hoover ever censured for the smear campaign that the FBI reportedly waged on the deceased Mrs. Liuzzo, apparently for the purposes of distracting the public from his botched agent implant? Or is the movie waging its own smear campaign against the FBI? Was it just coincidence that Liuzzo, the wife of a reputed mobster, was the white woman killed that night?
Viola Liuzzo is a hero, no doubt about it. But she is no more a hero than thousands of other Americans who died in our wars, both here and abroad. The message of her death has to be that Americans must control their peace keepers, lest they be imprisoned in their own homes. Unfortunately, although the story is touching, this message is barely conveyed.