The voting rights martyr who divided America

Viola Liuzzo's murder made her a scapegoat. It also sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act, which may soon be overturned.

Editor's note: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week over a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The following is an edited excerpt from John Blake's 2004 book "Children of the Movement" about Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who was killed while working for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. This story contains objectionable language.

By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) -- On March 26, 1965, Penny Liuzzo was watching the "Donna Reed Show" at her home in Detroit when a wave of nausea suddenly swept over her. In an instant, she knew what had happened.
"Oh my God," she thought as she stood up and walked out of the room. "My mom's dead."
    When Penny's mother, Viola Liuzzo, had called home a week earlier to tell her family she was going to Selma, Alabama, Penny had been engulfed by a sense of dread. She tried to talk her mother out of going.
    ''I'm never going to see you again, Mom. I know it. I just feel it. Please let me go in your place. I'll go."
    Liuzzo laughed off her daughter's fears. Viola had been determined to help marchers in Selma after watching newsreel footage of civil rights marchers being beaten there. She had cried after the newscast ended. ''I'm tired of sitting here watching people get beat up," she told her family before driving off to Selma.
    The call came at midnight. After experiencing her bout of nausea, Penny had gone to bed but could not sleep. She heard her father answer the phone. "Penny, your mother's dead! Your mother's dead," he wailed.
    Then something happened that Penny still cannot explain 40 years later. Her 6-year-old sister, Sally, walked into the bedroom and said, "No, Mama's not dead. I just saw her walking in the hall."
      The murder of Viola Liuzzo was one of the most shocking moments in the civil rights movement. On a winding, isolated road outside Selma, Liuzzo was ambushed and shot to death by a car full of Ku Klux Klansmen.