March 25, 1965 was a mild winter day for Alabama – 75 degrees – albeit accompanied by the normal Deep South humidity. The marchers were dispersing after hearing Dr. King’s speech on the capitol steps in Montgomery. 39-year old mother of five, Viola Liuzzo had joined the march after witnessing the horrifying images of civil rights marchers being beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge two weeks earlier. When she informed her husband that she would be leaving their white, middle-class neighborhood in Detroit to join the march, she stated, “It’s everybody’s fight.”
Later that evening, as Liuzzo drove Highway 80, shuttling marchers from Montgomery back to their homes in Selma, a car pulled alongside her. Shots rang out and her passenger, a black teenager named Leroy Moton, pretended to be dead. He would survive the attack; Liuzzo, who was shot in the face, did not. An investigation later revealed that the car who ran Liuzzo and Moton into the ditch was driven by and was full of KKK members, one of whom was an FBI informant.
Almost immediately rumors began to circulate about Liuzzo, later discovered to have been created by J. Edgar Hoover to detract from FBI involvement in the murder. She was called a Nigger lover who had left her husband and five children and gone south to have sex with black men, resuscitating the Jim Crow era trope of miscegenation that justified a majority of the lynchings committed against black men in the early 20th century. Liuzzo was also accused of being a drug addict. Most notably, a poll taken by the widely popular Ladies Home Journal in July of that year showed that 55% of respondents said she was not a good mother ostensibly because she had left her children to participate in the march.
Fast forward to August 2017, half a century later, post-civil rights movement, post-Obama presidency, and post-second wave. Heather Heyer, a white, 32-year old paralegal is attending the march in Charlottsville, Virginia, in support of equality and to protest a White Supremacist/Nazi inspired gathering. Like Liuzzo, friends noted that she “was a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised who was often moved to tears by the world’s injustices.” And like Liuzzo, a half century later, she was standing up for what she believed in when she too was struck down, this time by 20-year old white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. Within days, the Alt-Right website, the “Daily Stormer,” notably read by Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of the mass shooting at a Charleston, South Carolina church, published an article disparaging Heyer, calling her a “burden on society” for being childless and stating that “Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad she is dead as she is the definition of useless.”
Unlike in 1965, the social media response to the article and vile comments was swift; ultimately, Google opted to disband the site. Still, the backlash against Heyer, not unlike Liuzzo, sheds light on how far we have yet to come with regards to post-second wave feminism. Almost a half century after the women’s liberation movement, women are once again being told to “stay in our lane.” Indeed, the election of Donald Trump was fueled in part by an anti-feminist backlash against Hillary Clinton, disturbingly supported by the 58% of white women who voted for him. While the topic of race certainly needs to be front and center these days as we witness the current administration continue to fan the flames of a disaffected, white racist populous, as a country we also need to address the lingering resentment surrounding the progress that women, and white women in particular, have made as a result of the women’s movement, a movement that arose, in large part, from the “rights revolution” created in the wake of the modern civil rights movement.
While the backlash against Liuzzo was not unusual for 1960s Cold War America, the disturbing response in some quarters to the murder of Heather Heyer is a reminder that as far back as the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, African American and women’s rights continue to be connected. We need to stop resting on the false assumption that the civil/women’s/gay rights revolutions of the “sixties” ended the most heinous forms of discrimination. Perhaps a new non-violent direct-action movement is necessary to stanch the radical racism, sexism, and bigotry that has bubbled to the surface since November 8, 2016, an election that emboldened some Americans in their belief that we are indeed going to “Make America Great” again by returning to the days of Jim Crow, the Feminine Mystique, and pre-Stonewall. Despite the numerous successes that emerged from the rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, we cannot anymore rest on those laurels. Perhaps it is time for a new rights revolution if only to remind America that we are already a great nation, and we will not let a group of Nazi racists tell us otherwise.