A son's vigil of irony
A Detroit mother's push for Americans' rights got her killed. Decades
later, her child says he honors her through a militia
May 30, 2001
BY SHAWN WINDSOR
(Detroit) FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
The son is asleep on the couch. It is 2 a.m.
Behind his double-wide trailer, feet that shouldn't be there kick up
underbrush in the woods.
Tony Liuzzo pops up when he hears the footsteps, just as he has trained
himself to do for such a moment. He notices a blue light, laser-like,
piercing through his rear living-room window.
He slinks, quickly, to a bedroom closet to fetch his gear and weapons. His
wife, Sue, awakens in their bedroom.
"Tony? Tony? Did you hear that?"
Cover the house, he tells her.
She grabs her .45.
He flies out the side door and hits the deck, rolls to the edge and lands
in a woodpile, aiming his battle rifle into the dark thicket where he is
sure a handful of agents are coming to get him, and, quite possibly, begin
the war to take over the world and destroy the U.S. Constitution.
He will not be taken by surprise.
Thirty-six years ago, on a foggy night in rural Alabama, his mother was.
Viola Liuzzo lost her life and became a martyr for the civil rights movement.
Now, as the son lies still in his woodpile, finger on the trigger, he has
picked up her battle in a fight that to outsiders seems a contradiction to
Liuzzo said militia groups are unfairly demonized as racists and fanatics.
He said his group is not racist and that a handful of African Americans are
He also said despite news reports of the death of Michigan's militia, there
are still plenty like him, ready to use force to protect the Constitution
at all costs.
In an interview last week, he described the commotion near his home on a
night last fall. And he sees no irony in his calling to the citizens' militia.
"I am doing my mother's work," he said.
To this day, Tony Liuzzo isn't certain who pulled the trigger that killed
his mother, Viola Liuzzo, on a deserted road in Lowndes County, Ala., in
1965. He is certain the mystery involved a cover-up, and involved the
government, specifically, the FBI.
He is also certain of his memory the night he found out he lost her. He was
asleep. In his bed. A 10-year-old dreaming. He woke up to his sister
Reporters were already outside the Liuzzo house on Marlowe street in
northwest Detroit, waiting for the lights inside to come on. The next
couple of days were a blur. A stream of stunned priests and civil rights
workers and friends and family and truck drivers rolled through the corner
brick house, including Jimmy Hoffa, who was a buddy of Tony's father, Jim,
a successful business agent for the Teamsters.
He was a burly, hard-drinking union man, a father of five children, two of
whom he adopted. He was no wave maker, no idealist.
Viola Liuzzo was a dreamer.
"She was ahead of her day," said her daughter, Penny Herrington, who lives
Viola was a Southern gal who settled in the North and never forgot the
segregation of her childhood. She always brought the downtrodden into her
home and fed them or gave them money, to Jim's consternation.
On the night of March 25, Viola returned to Selma, Ala., after the voting
rights march to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was
ferrying weary marchers between Montgomery and Selma.
She made plans to drive back to Montgomery that night with Leroy Moten, a
19-year-old black activist.
She was driving a 1963 Oldsmobile with Michigan plates in the fog along the
curvy section of Highway 80 in Lowndes County. Viola noticed a car
In the car sat three Klansmen and an FBI informant. They'd spotted Viola
and Moten in Selma.
The men caught the Oldsmobile and opened fire. Viola , 39, was killed
instantly. Moten lived.
The Klansmen were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury, though a
federal court later found them guilty of civil rights violations.
Tony said he has forgiven all four men, even told each one of them himself.
"Yahweh has a plan for me," Tony said, referring to God. "I am not bitter."
And yet, said Howard Simon, the former director of Michigan's American
Civil Liberties Union who later helped the Liuzzo family sue the FBI for
wrongful death, "he had every right to be."
In the days and weeks after the murder, the funeral, Tony recalls, had a
King, who pulled Tony aside at the service, put his hands on his shoulders
and said: "One day you will understand."
Then came the ugliness -- racist taunts at his parochial school, death
threats, hate mail and the stoning of his sister one afternoon as she
returned from school.
The insinuation was clear: His mother had gotten what she deserved for
getting involved in something that wasn't her business.
Still, President Lyndon B. Johnson used the slaying to help pass the Voting
Rights Act of 1965 -- a difficult thing for a 10-year-old to grasp in the
face of venom.
"But I knew what she was," he said. "I knew she cared about people, about
After his family moved to Southfield, Tony fought many brawls defending his
mother's reputation. He dropped out of school at 16 and went to work in a
gas station. Two years later, he received his GED and joined the Army. He
broke his ankle and was honorably discharged seven weeks later.
In 1975, he and his family filed a lawsuit for wrongful death. He felt the
notoriety hurt his reputation and found it hard to keep a job. His heroin
habit didn't help.
He married Sue, the mother of their 2-year-old son, in 1976. He was driving
a truck, working construction, drinking heavily.
"For many years I didn't like myself. I didn't know who I was," he said.
His father had a stroke and died in 1978.
In 1980, Sue and Tony had a second son. Three years later, the long, bitter
fight with the government ended when a federal judge in Ann Arbor threw out
the lawsuit against the FBI.
Tony then joined the fringes of the civil rights movement, creating the
Viola Gregg Liuzzo Institute for Human Rights.
But he remained empty, except for the liquor. By now, he was living in
Pontiac, scrounging work, fading from the movement his mother helped define.
In 1992, he injured his back. When it healed a year later, he couldn't work
and began collecting disability.
Rarely sober and with his marriage falling apart, Tony found himself alone
at home one afternoon in 1996. He prayed for help.
He hasn't had a drink since. Or a drug, except for nicotine.
Three years ago, Liuzzo bought a $60 shortwave radio -- still in its
original box -- at a flea market.
He took it home with nostalgia misting his eyes, remembering his dad
listening to the Yankees on a shortwave. But Liuzzo found something edgier
He heard the voices of America's self-styled militia movement. He learned
of the New World Order, of the United Nations effort to disarm U.S. citizens.
He began reading, searching the Web, ordering videotapes that discussed
chemical experiments on unwitting citizens and foreign troops training in
The Liuzzos sold their house last year in Pontiac and bought 12 acres of
ash, maple and pine 8 miles outside Harrison in the middle of the state.
Using parts he scrounged, he built a double-wide trailer and a smaller one
where he broadcasts his radio show.
Around the perimeter of the property, he tacked dozens of "No Trespassing"
The Liuzzos began attending rallies. They stockpiled food. They armed
"We discovered the truth," Sue said.
"I felt very strongly my mother gave her life for this country. I am
willing to do the same," Tony said.
Tony is second in command for the Michigan Militia Corps Wolverines, the
same outfit Dexter native and militia icon Mark Koernke belonged to. Tony,
in fact, took over Koernke's radio show, "The Intelligence Report," when
Koernke was sent to prison for resisting an officer and assault with a
dangerous weapon in April.
Tony carries a .45 pistol in a shoulder harness whenever he is at home and
awake. At night, it rests on his nightstand, as Sue's does on hers.
On the coffee table is a tray of bamboo with seven casually laid
.45-caliber clips. A small basket holds shotgun shells, as if they were
Among the ammo and the cigarette smoke and the coffee residue and the
militia propaganda, Tony lives, often in socks because his wife doesn't
like him tracking dirt, and often in stubble, because he's always changing
And always alert, ready to grab his gear and hit the woods.
"There may have been more productive outlets for him than the militia,"
said Simon, the ACLU director who spent eight years with Tony fighting the
government, "but that's his choice. At least he's willing to look beyond
things -- and until anyone's walked in his shoes, they have no right to
So when he and Sue hop from slumber, grab guns and go looking for noises in
their backyard, they are exercising a kind of faith.
Sue said Ezekiel in the Bible teaches that when you see the sword come upon
the land, blow the trumpet and warn the people.
Tony is a watchman, she said. Even in his sleep.
His sister, Penny, is in awe of her brother and how he has taken up -- like
his mother -- the cause of individual rights.
"Mom would be proud of what Tony's become. Who knows, if she were alive,
she may have joined the militia, too."
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