Home of the Brave

Article excerpt

HOME OF THE BRAVE. Produced by Nancy Dickenson and Paola di Florio. Directed by Paola di Floria. New York: Emerging Pictures, 2004. RUNNING TIME: 75 MINUTES. Production notes: http://www. emergingpictures.com/home_of_the_brave.htm

This documentary film tells the story of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman murdered during the civil rights movement, and her children's search to understand their mother and her legacy. Inspired by Mary Stanton's book From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo, the film includes interviews with the Liuzzo children, public officials, reporters, and others who witnessed or participated in the events. These interviews give a personal and family perspective on the murder and on the civil rights movement in ways that challenge the accuracy and completeness of existing records and the integrity of the FBI investigation.

The movie opens with a dramatic shot of the nighttime drive-by shooting on U.S. Highway 80 in Lowndes County, between Selma and Montgomery Alabama, and then proceeds to newsreel footage of President Johnson's announcement that in less than twenty-four hours the FBI had the murder suspects in custody. Gradually, the film introduces suggestions that the murder may not have been a drive-by shooting as shown in the opening scene and that the actual murderer may have been the FBI informant rather than the three Ku Klux Klan members charged with the crime: William Eaton, Eugene Thomas, and Collie Wilkins. The FBI informant, Klansman Gary Rowe, who was in the murder vehicle with them, testified against the other three.

Despite the informant's testimony, an Alabama court acquitted the three Klansman of murder charges, but a federal court subsequently convicted them for conspiring to deprive Liuzzo of her civil rights. The FBI's report on Viola Liuzzo, the victim, was over fifteen hundred pages long, three times the length of the report on the Klan activities leading to the murder. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover denounced Liuzzo's husband, a high-ranking Teamster's Union official and an associate of Jimmy Hoffa. Additionally, the FBI leaked information suggesting that Viola giuzzo had come to the demonstration to sleep with black men and use illegal drugs. Even so, the Liuzzo murder gave leverage to President Johnson in his efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which won congressional approval a few months after the murder.

By 1978, new evidence surfaced. With J. Edgar Hoover dead, the program that had hired Gary Rowe came under scrutiny. Wilkins and Thomas, then out of jail, admitted that they were in the vehicle but claimed that Rowe, the informant, had done the shooting; Rowe admitted that he held a gun but said that he had only pretended to shoot. Wilkins and Thomas both passed lie detector tests, and Rowe failed his lie detector test. (Eaton, the other Klansman, had died.) Other information implicated Rowe in violent acts on behalf of the Klan. An Alabama grand jury indicted Rowe for the murder of Liuzzo, but a federal judge blocked extradition to Alabama because of Rowe's protected status as informant for the FBI. The Liuzzo children then filed suit alleging that the FBI was responsible for the murder; however, the judge denied their suit.

Two forensic experts, noting the locations of blood spills and the downward trajectory of the bullet, challenged the likelihood that the fatal shot had resulted from a drive-by shooting. …