Dancing to Viola’s Blues

11.ViolaLiuzzoI love old-fashioned social dancing to swing and blues music, but sometimes the music we move to with passion and joy has its roots in true tales of tragedy and sacrifice. What do you expect from the blues? On Tuesday night I was hanging at Denver’s Mercury Cafe when I watched the dance floor fill to a soulful blues song I’d never heard before. The singer repeated a name over and over: “Viola, Viola…”

A girlfriend sitting next to me asked, “Do you know who this woman was? I’ve done some studying of the Civil Rights Movement, but I don’t remember hearing about her.” I felt kind of stupid, because I had been so focused on the music, I didn’t even realize the song had anything to do with civil rights.

Here’s the chorus of the song, Color Blind Angel, by Robin Rogers:
Viola, Viola, you laid your young life down.
From Selma to heaven, 3 Ks took you out.
Color blind angel battled bigotry.
Viola, Viola lives on in history.

You can listen to the whole song here. It evokes the gutsy power of Viola’s story, but in such broad brushstrokes it made my friend and me even more eager to know, “Who was she?”

The next day, my friend did some research, discovered more of Viola Liuzzo’s story, and passed it on to me. I was moved all the more because I realized that most heroes vanish with few people knowing who they were, what they gave, or why. Viola Liuzzo was the only white woman to die in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, she joined the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin Luther King gave a speech. The 39-year-old wife and mother-of-five told her husband she wanted to march because, “It’s everybody’s fight.” She walked barefoot, and died that way, too – gunned down by the KKK while driving some marchers home.

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For some reason, it’s her bare feet that make me tear up. Maybe because they evoke the countless miles of walking that Civil Rights activists did for their cause, maybe because walking barefoot seems so down-to-earth, so not asking for attention, so naked and ordinary. She simply hated shoes.

But the next time I think of Viola, I probably won’t be barefoot – I’ll be wearing my dance shoes.