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.
She was murdered while giving a ride to a 19-year-old black man, Leroy Moton, one of many civil rights marchers she had driven around Selma. Liuzzo had joined the movement's carpool system soon after arriving in the small Alabama town. Liuzzo's murder became international news. Her photo became a fixture in history books. Her name has been inscribed on civil rights memorials throughout the United States.
But people had far less sympathy for Liuzzo when she was murdered. Hate mail flooded her family's Detroit home, accusing her of being a deranged communist. Crosses were burned in front of the home. Her husband, Anthony Liuzzo Sr., had to hire armed guards to protect his family.
A Ladies' Home Journal magazine survey taken right after Liuzzo's death asked its readers what kind of woman would leave her family for a civil rights demonstration. The magazine suggested that she had brought death on herself by leaving home -- and 55% of its readers agreed.
"It was horrible," Penny says. "People sent [copies of] this magazine that showed her body in the car with the blood and bullet holes. They called her a white whore and a nigger lover, and said that she was having relations with black men."
Even Sally did not escape the public's wrath. Students threw rocks at her and taunted her on the way to school, Penny says.
The family was even more devastated when they learned years later who had initiated the public backlash -- J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. To absolve itself of culpability in her death -- an FBI informant was in the car with the men who killed Liuzzo -- the FBI released her psychiatric records and directed a smear campaign to suggest that Liuzzo was promiscuous.
"Your mother has not died in vain," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told Penny at her mother's funeral. Yet she wondered for years if that was true.
The loss of her mother and the public backlash shattered Penny's family. Her father never recovered. Her sisters and brothers struggled.
And Penny carried around a knot of bitterness for years.
The effect on Sally was brutal. "My heart just broke when Sally was 11 years old and we went to visit my mom's grave and she just sobbed on my shoulder, 'Please, tell me what she was like. I don't remember. I don't remember. Please, I can't remember her voice.'"
But Penny still has plenty of memories of her mother. As the eldest child, she spent the most time with her. Today she is a housewife and a mother of four sons living near Fresno, California, with her boyfriend, Bryce. She is a warm and open woman who loves to laugh. It's odd to connect a string of tragedies with such a cheerful woman. Now 66, she has struggled with diabetes and was once legally blind until laser surgery helped her see well enough to drive.
"She was always for the underdog," she says of her mother. "Once, our neighbors had a fire. She went around and took up a collection to replace the toys -- this was around Christmastime -- they had eight kids."
Mary Stanton, author of the definitive Liuzzo biography, "From Selma to Sorrow," says Viola Liuzzo discovered that a secretary where she worked had been laid off without severance pay. She gave the woman her entire paycheck hoping it would embarrass her employer into giving the woman severance. It didn't, and Liuzzo paid for her activism by losing her own job.
Viola Liuzzo was a restless person. She married at 16 but had it annulled the next day. She married again and had two daughters, Penny and Mary. Seven years later she was divorced again. In 1950, she married Anthony Liuzzo Sr., a Teamsters leader. They had three children, Anthony Jr., Thomas and Sally.
She was also ambitious. Viola Liuzzo wouldn't settle for being a housewife. Though she was a ninth-grade dropout, in 1961 she enrolled in night classes to become a medical assistant. She graduated with top honors. She was a member of the Catholic Church but left after a priest told her that a child she had miscarried would never see the face of God. She joined the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Stanton says she was intrigued by Liuzzo's refusal to play the part of the submissive housewife. While her neighbors were taking cooking classes or doing church volunteer work, Liuzzo was preparing for a career, crusading for workplace rights, and going back to college.
"She was one of these people who got really involved in everything she did," Stanton says. "They become like a vortex that sucks other people into their enthusiasm."