Slain civil rights activist to receive posthumous award at UC Merced

UC Merced will present a social justice award next month to the family of a civil rights activist killed in 1965 while registering black voters in Alabama.

The Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance will be given to the children of Viola Gregg Liuzzo during a Nov. 6 ceremony at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, 645 W. Main St.

Liuzzo was killed by the Ku Klux Klan while driving another activist home from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in March 1965. Her three daughters, Sally Prado, Penny Herrington and Mary Lilleboe, are expected to accept the prize.

A wife and mother of five children, Liuzzo left her Detroit home in spring 1965 to work with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. registering black voters in Selma, Ala., after seeing news about a police attack on 600 civil rights workers.

“(She) could be seen as having a number of legitimate reasons for not getting involved in the 1960s struggle for African American civil rights. Despite that, she strongly believed it was ‘everybody’s fight,’ ” Sherrie Spendlove, who established the award in 2006 in honor of her parents, said in a news release.

The day after Liuzzo’s murder, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on television to announce that her four killers had been caught. Her murder led Johnson to order an investigation into the KKK.

About 350 people attended Liuzzo’s funeral, including King.

Her story has been the subject of several books and a documentary. She is among 40 civil rights martyrs honored on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 2006.

In 2013, she was awarded the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award.

“The Spendlove Prize Committee agreed that Viola’s bold idealism and sacrifice helped to shine a light on the responsibility of all people to help fight injustice,” said Mark Aldenderfer, UC Merced dean of social sciences, humanities and arts, in a news release.

The selection committee for the prize is chaired by Aldenderfer and includes a representative from the Spendlove family, an undergraduate student and a graduate student.

The Spendlove Prize was established in 2006 in honor of lifelong Merced residents Alice and Clifford Spendlove. The annual prize honors an individual who exemplifies the principles of social justice, diplomacy and tolerance in his or her work.