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1965: White jury convicts Ku Klux Klansmen

An all-white jury in the southern US state of Alabama has convicted three Ku Klux Klansmen over the murder of white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo.

The mother of five from Detroit was shot and killed while driving a young black activist, Leroy Moton, back to the town of Selma following a protest march to the state capital Montgomery on 25 March.

A car pulled up alongside Mrs Liuzzo's car. She was shot twice in the head and killed instantly. Her car veered off the road and crashed but Mr Moton was unhurt.

Collie Leroy Wilkins, aged 22, Eugene Thomas, 42, and William Eaton, 41, were convicted in a federal court on conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of 39-year-old Mrs Liuzzo.

They were given the maximum 10-year sentence.

The men were not able to be convicted on a murder charge because homicide is not within federal jurisdiction.

Wilkins had already been acquitted of the same murder in a state court in neighbouring Lowndes County, a decision which sent shockwaves across America.

'Hooded society of bigots'

The US President, Lyndon B Johnson, had intervened in the case from the very beginning.

The day after Mrs Liuzzo's murder he announced on television that four members of the KKK had been arrested, including Gary Rowe - later revealed as an undercover FBI agent and who testified against the other three.

The president also condemned the Klan as "a hooded society of bigots".

Robert Shelton, leader or Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, called the president "a damn liar" and suggested Mrs Liuzzo's death, along with that of Rev James Reeb, were a "trumped up communist plot to destroy the right wing in America".

Pressure for change

Both the president and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King have been calling for legislation to prevent courts in the southern states from refusing to convict those who kill black people and civil rights workers.

Last month President Johnson promised new laws "to prevent injustice to Negroes at the hands of all-white juries".

The pressure for change seems to be having an effect.

Today's groundbreaking verdict comes a day after an Alabama court made history by convicting a white man of the second-degree murder of a black man.

Hubert Damon Strange, aged 26, was found guilty by the Anniston state court in Alabama of murdering foundryman Willie Brewster last July.

He was sentenced today to 10 years' in prison. Two other white men charged with the murder will be tried at a later date.

All the convicted men have given notice of appeal.

In Context
William Eaton died of a heart attack in March 1966 while free on bail.

Six months later, Eugene Thomas was acquitted on appeal by a jury of eight African Americans and four whites in Hayneville, Alabama.

The House Committee of Un-American Activities conducted an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan that same year and the federal government under President Johnson did impose some control over their activities.

But the KKK is still sporadically active in parts of the USA.

Viola Liuzzo's children attempted to get the FBI to admit complicity in the murder but were unsuccessful.


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