The world continues to spin on a dangerous axis of racially charged restlessness. The violent reactions to alleged police brutality and a perceived lack of sensitivity and understanding between black and white Americans have led to a bitter stalemate. Media-hyped incidents pitting white law enforcement against young, black men are the growing news of the day. But regardless of what the media portrays for the linings of their own pockets, there are many positive actions that are downplayed.
The standout individuals that cross lines in an effort to change our interactions do exist, and they have paid the ultimate price in their quest for the eradication of hate and racial bigotry. Throughout the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, human beings of all colors took up the banner in the fight to bring a peaceful directive for the equal future of everyone.
One of those great Americans was Viola Liuzzo. Viola was a child of the South. A housewife with five children, a Teamsters husband and a suburban backdrop of life, Viola witnessed the first-hand discrimination of blacks in her childhood Chattanooga, Tennessee, neighborhood. Later, as a young adult, she became an early member of the NAACP, which was unusual for the time, as Viola was not only a woman, but she also happened to be white.
Liuzzo was a local activist who believed in equality to the point of traveling to Selma, Alabama, to join Dr. Martin Luther King in the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965. On March 25, Viola was transporting event attendees to and from the Montgomery Airport when her car was overtaken by members of the Ku Klux Clan, and she was assassinated. She was 39 years old.
But that senseless act of violence still couldn’t stop the forward motion of a woman who put her safety in the background while boldly stepping to the frontline with empathy for her fellow man. That is the exemplary legendary that led New Jersey singer-songwriter Arlan Feiles to a destiny of exploration into this woman’s story, and the eventual writing of the introspective composition, “Viola.”
Feiles’ background is as interesting as his aspirations. A California transplant, Feiles has shared the stage with a plethora of iconic trailblazers including The Band, the late Warren Zevon, Hot Tuna, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Warren Haynes, Dave Matthews, Bob Pollard, and so many more. His time in Florida with the group Natural Causes put him onto the path of legendary producer Tom Dowd, a man who gave us the historic sounds of Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, The Eagles and legions of rock and roll pioneers.
His mid-decade move to New Jersey marked a departure from standard, commercial aims and saw Feiles reinventing his approach to both writing and performing. His 2007 disc, Razing A Nation, won him a coveted “Top Americana Artists” as well as “Top Keyboard” at the Asbury Music Awards.
His next record, Come Sunday Morning, debuted at number 15 on the Euro Americana charts and number 24 on the FAR chart. Come Sunday Morning also won him “Best Album” honors at the AMAs, as well as “Top Americana Band” and “Top Keyboard” honors again. The song “Viola” was featured on Come Sunday Morning, as well as 2012’s Weeds. But to me, Come Sunday Morning was the record that turned heads in the music scene and the industry as a whole.
Feiles’ interest in activist-related support is well-documented. His passion and belief in the people are the tools he has used to lead him in the telling of the Viola Liuzzo story through song. “Viola” is both poignant and emotionally breathtaking. The sadness of her death is overtaken by the beauty of her bravery. Feiles spares no expense in the uplifting glorification of a simple, white housewife who helped changed the world with her selfless act of compassion and heroism.
To help mark the remembrance of Viola, Arlan will be undertaking a trip to Selma, Alabama, in the next few days. He will be performing in Montgomery, Alabama, at the screening of Home Of The Brave, The Viola Liuzzo Story on March 6. His journey will then take him to a memorial slated to take place at the marker off Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery at the spot where Viola was killed. He also will be marching with the Liuzzo children in a reenactment of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 8.
Arlan spoke to me via phone recently and answered a few questions about his thoughts on Viola, her historic act of bravery, and a legacy aimed at peaceful relations in these United States of America.
So, explain to our readers just how Viola Liuzzo affected you and led to the writing of the song, “Viola?”
I first heard of Viola Liuzzo as I was sitting at the piano writing. I had the TV on, as I often do when I’m writing. My attention was drawn to the TV as I saw marchers singing freedom songs, standing side by side and one behind the other marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a documentary about Viola and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. I was blown away by this woman who was so moved and disturbed by the injustices perpetrated on the African American people in America at the time that she put everything on the line for the cause. Even though Viola was a white woman with a wonderful family with all she needed in Detroit—far from the strife of the South—she saw that she had a role to play in the fight for change and equality. She lost her life for the cause. I think she was at peace with that. She knew the dangers. I hope to be so brave, I hope every day that I recognize any injustice around me and can be conscience of the fact, as Viola was that injustice to one is injustice to all, no matter the color of their skin, their religion, or economic class.
I know you’ve had interaction with Viola’s family. How do they feel concerning her sacrifice?
I know there is a huge weight to carry for the whole family. They miss their mother terribly. It was extremely difficult to be in the path of the wake her murder left. Viola’s name was dragged through the mud in the media, and they were bullied and called names for many years. That aside, all of them are overwhelmingly proud of their mother’s courage and sacrifice. They still look to make their mother proud. They carry her torch. They all have taken on her fight and are actively sharing Viola’s story at events for voting rights and economic equality all over the country. I have had the honor of appearing with the family at some of these events. I know that Viola would be extremely proud of the whole family.
Knowing the original goal of civil rights movement, what is your take on today’s issues concerning racial unrest from both sides?
There are clearly efforts to turn back the clock on progress made towards voting rights and economic equality. It’s natural to occur during times of economic strife, but not excusable. I find that efforts like overturning the voting rights act is highly offensive. People are distracted by their microcosms of society. They need to remember we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper, all across the country. We have to keep educating and fighting for true equality and justice for all. African Americans, the homeless, the underemployed, the LGBT communities and women continue to find their way to the bottom of the pyramid.
Do you feel that sacrifices made by people such as Viola are given the proper context in today’s media coverage of race relations?
I do. They haven’t always. But the access to information is so fast, and there is so much to discover. Viola’s story has been told for decades and now finally being heard on a national stage. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that they are important stories to tell.
You seem to be moving into the support role of an activist. Will we be seeing further involvement in causes of civil unrest and reform, and if so, how?
I’ve always taken an interest in activism and politics. Artists like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan have been my greatest inspirations to learn an instrument and the craft of songwriting; not for chicks or becoming a rock star, but to do my part. Music is often just the best tool I have in my shed to share my concerns about inequality, to expose injustices, and to call for a real change. Maybe I can inspire one more vote from a cynical neighbor, maybe I can inform someone about the plight of the homeless right here in NJ. I believe as an artist, not an entertainer, that we have a great opportunity to inspire change and share a call to action.
If you could express your main goal in your involvement with this piece of American tragedy/history, what would you tell us that would be?
To share Viola’s story, to inform about the lingering inequalities we all face as Americans every day, and to remind people we all have the power to make a difference. We all have the power of the vote. I am one vote. You are one vote. If I succeed today, I am more the fulfilled.
To see how Arlan Feiles and his ongoing quest for civility progresses, check him out at facebook.com/arlanfeiles and twitter.com/arlanfeiles.