|Date(s):||April 1, 1965|
|Location(s):||Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan|
|Tag(s):||Hate Crime, Race-Relations, Murder, Civil Rights|
|Course:||“US Since 1945,” Juniata College|
|Rating:||4 (2 votes)|
On April 1st 1965, a cross was burned outside the late Viola Liuzzo’s house in Detroit, Michigan. The Brownsville Herald reported a few days later that another cross had since been burned, making it “the fourth cross burning in Detroit in less than 24 hours.” The incident occurred on the front lawn of the Liuzzo house just two days after the funeral of Viola Liuzzo, commemorating the life the working class Michigan native. Liuzzo was shot while she ferried people during the Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Liuzzo had identified herself as a keen supporter and worker for the Civil Rights movement in the South, and the burning of the cross outside of her home in the North is evidence of the Ku Klux Klan claiming responsibility for her murder.
Cross burning is a long established form of hate crime and is specified in many state laws: “burning crosses with the intent to cause alarm among African Americans was symbolic speech, and the statute was an illegal censorship of the right of expression.” The newspaper’s mild account of the incident may be partly intentional in order to avoid alienating parts of their readership, which may include racist sympathisers. Jeannine Bell addresses this possibility: “Often acts of anti-integrationist violence look like petty crimes – vandalism or other property damage…local officials must understand that a cross-burning is not just an arson.” It may also be for this reason that coverage of the cross burning outside of the Liuzzo household is minimal, with only a brief mention in Mary Stanton’s biography of Viola Liuzzo.
Despite the clear involvement of the Ku Klux Klan in Viola Liuzzo’s murder due to evidence provided by Gary Thomas Rowe – Ku Klux Klan member and FBI informant – the language used in the article reveals the power that the organisation had over journalism and the general public. When considering who set the cross alight, the newspaper accuses “pranksters, bigots, or punks…it will be interesting to see just what kind of strange people they are.” Historian Gary May claims that even President Johnson used relatively tame rhetoric when acknowledging the Klan’s involvement, and appealing to them to end their activities: “If Klansmen hear my voice today, let it be both an appeal – and a warning – to get out of the Klan now and return to a decent society.” The focus centered on the Klu Klux Klan’s involvement in the murder in Alabama, and both journalists and historians alike fail to stress the significance of the racially motivated cross burning back in Michigan.
This case stands out due to the victimisation of a white female in the North, while most other incidents of cross burning targeted African-Americans in the South. Viola Liuzzo’s husband and her five children faced other forms of violence after the murder, including “obscene phone calls and hate mail.” The burning cross is, however, a symbol strongly associated with Klan activity, and establishes their presence in a neighbourhood previously considered a fair distance from the more public troubles of the South.