My Sister’s Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper

Sarah Evans and Viola Liuzzo had been close friends for more than 20 years before Viola headed to Alabama in 1965 to participate in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. It was only natural that Viola would ask Sarah to “babysit” her five children while she was gone. When Viola was murdered by the KKK after the march, Sarah became a surrogate mother to Viola’s family.

The two had met toward the end of WWII in Detroit when Viola came into a store where Sarah was a sales clerk. They struck up a conversation and, as she was leaving, Viola invited Sarah to come to her apartment for coffee. Though she was African-American and ten years older, Sarah accepted the invitation from this white woman. The two discovered they had much in common. Both had been raised in the South. They talked about their southern roots, but for “all its foolishness”, Evans recalled, “it was a place we both missed.” When Viola’s first daughter was born, she asked Sarah to babysit. As their friendship developed and Viola had four more children, Sarah’s role in the family grew into that of full time housekeeper. One of Viola’s daughters would later recall: “Our mother wasn’t traditional and she wasn’t domestic… Sarah was the stability in our house.”

Certainly Viola Liuzzo was anything but “traditional”. She had been raised in the South where she had witnessed racial segregation and came to recognize her own white privilege. After moving to the North she experienced the racial tensions and industrial riots of the ‘40s in Detroit. An activist in the labor movement, it wasn’t until she attended college in the early ‘60s that she got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It was through Sarah that Viola joined the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. Together they drove to New York City in 1964 to attend a civil rights seminar at the United Nations.

The next year, when she saw on TV voting rights demonstrators beaten by State Police while attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she was inspired to drive to Selma to participate in march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Once there, Viola volunteered to drive the march participants to bus and train stations and the airport in her 1963 Oldsmobile.

Before she left, Viola asked Sarah to help her husband with the five kids. Sarah recounted that Viola was “a loving mother. She took good care of her kids. She set it for me to stay with them while she was gone… She left very detailed instructions for their care. She promised she would call every night.” Sarah was worried about Viola and even tried to discourage her from going to Selma. “You could get yourself killed,” she remembered warning Viola. But Viola wanted to do something with her life that would make a difference and she felt that the civil rights movement would be that opportunity.

No one could have imagined that Viola Liuzzo would be murdered in such a brutal way. Following the march to Montgomery, she was driving with a young black man back to Selma when her car was overtaken by members of the Klan who shot her through her car window. The following day President Johnson announced the arrest of the four Klansman. Michigan Gov. George Romney visited the grief-stricken family and stated that “she died for what she believed in, and what she believed in was the cause of humanity.” In spite of such accolades, racist organizations attacked her character; a cross was burned in her front yard. The children were bullied at school; garbage thrown at their house. In the aftermath of Viola’s death it was Sarah Evans who held the family together. According to one scholar, “Without Sarah’s friendship life would have been unbearable for the Liuzzo family.”