Poetry and prose

Viola: A brave mother’s last seconds of life

Poet Terri Kirby Erickson
Poet Terri Kirby Erickson

The following poem, ‘Leroy and Viola,’ was written after I read a newspaper article about a white woman named Viola Gregg Liuzzo, who sacrificed her life for the American Civil Rights movement, and her companion on that fateful day, African American freedom fighter, Leroy Moton. I had the honor and privilege of speaking with Mr. Moton by phone on several occasions after writing this poem, and marvel at his bravery and dedication to the cause for which he nearly died, as well.

Leroy and Viola

Come Saturday morning, poor black men

gathered on street corners, waiting for white

men in Cadillacs to drive by slow, shouting

hey boy from their rolled-down windows, get

in, which meant there was a job digging ditches

or other backbreaking work for less money

than it cost to feed the family dog. Nights

were harder, what with hooded gangs of racists

wrapped in bed sheets roaming the countryside,

and woe to anybody who wasn’t white once

those half-drunk, hatemongering mobs with

their burning crosses and lengths of rope,

arrived on the scene. So in 1965 when married

mother-of-five Viola Gregg Liuzzo volunteered

to drive nineteen-year-old Leroy Moton back

to Selma—both fresh from a freedom march

in Montgomery, Alabama—the sight of a white

woman with a black man in the front seat of

a vehicle sporting Michigan plates didn’t sit

well with Klansmen who were, as usual, wild

as pent-up ponies in a barn blaze. So they chased

the pair down and fired two bullets into Liuzzo’s

brain, laughing like loons when the car careened

into a ditch. Covered in blood, Moton played

dead—surviving the shots, the crash, and the killers’

swift perusal of the wreckage. But Viola Liuzzo

is gone except in memory, where the same reel

runs over and over in Leroy Moton’s mind:

a pretty woman’s profile, pale as milk against

the purpling sky, and his hand, dark as rivers

on the radio dial—strangers joined forever

by history, seconds before the slaughter.

By Terri Kirby Erickson, excerpt,
A Lake of Light and Clouds,
© 2014

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