The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo
By Gary May
Yale Univ. 431 pp. $35 On the evening of March 25, 1965, following a demonstration for voting rights in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, Viola Liuzzo set out in her Oldsmobile for Selma, 50 miles away. She was a 39-year-old white woman from Detroit. Her passengers were three other white women and two black men. She dropped off the three women and one of the men in Selma. She then offered to drive her remaining passenger, a 19-year-old black Alabamian, Leroy Moton, back to Montgomery. A few miles out of town, they began to be followed by a Chevrolet Impala. Suddenly it pulled up beside them, and its occupants began to shoot at them. The Oldsmobile swerved off the road into a field. One of the men in the Chevrolet said: "I'm one hell of a shot. That bitch and that bastard are dead and in hell."
Moton survived with only minor injuries, but Liuzzo was dead. Terrified, Moton ran along the road in search of help. Late that night, an aide to the civil rights leader Hosea Williams telephoned Liuzzo's husband, Jim, who was paralyzed with grief at the news, as were their children. President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were notified, and with that the hunt for the killers began. No one was optimistic. Law officers would be "looking for a needle in a haystack," as Hoover put it, because there were "no leads, no obvious suspects," and the crime had occurred in Lowndes County, of which Alabama's attorney general, Richmond Flowers, said, quoting his troopers,"There's no hate like the hate down there."
Yet within little more than 24 hours, Johnson told the nation that four men had been arrested: Eugene Thomas, William Orville Eaton, Collie Leroy Wilkins and Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., all members of Eastview Klavern No. 13 of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Birmingham. But the fourth man, Rowe, was in fact neither arrested nor jailed. He was, as he had been for four years, an undercover informant for the FBI, and now he was about to blow his cover, testifying in court against his three fellow Klansmen. It looked very much as if a great victory lay in store for the civil rights movement in the South and its allies in Washington, a victory to be won in the place rivaled only by Neshoba County in Mississippi as the country's bitterest, most violent redoubt of white racism and hatred.
The story was all over the news at the time, but over four decades it has faded from the public's memory. The civil rights movement had all too many martyrs, and Viola Liuzzo long ago disappeared into the crowd, even though she was distinguished by being white and a woman, and though a biography of her was published seven years ago. Now, however, her story has been brought back to life in The Informant. As Gary May's title makes plain, his focus is on Gary Thomas Rowe rather than on Liuzzo, but there is good reason for that. Shattering though her murder was to her own family, the larger and more important story is about Rowe's relationship with the FBI, and vice versa, for it raises serious questions about the price the public pays when its law-enforcement agencies crawl into bed with unsavory characters in the hope of obtaining inside information about dangerous, unsavory organizations -- questions that obviously are of particular urgency as the United States and its allies attempt to infiltrate terrorist operations.
Hoover's FBI liked to portray Rowe as a hero because of the occasional tidbits of information he passed along, but he was about as unheroic as a person could get. When an agent named Barrett G. Kemp recruited him in 1960, he looked a whole lot more like the enemy than a friend: "He had all the characteristics of an Alabama Klansman: He was young, twenty-six, with a hair-trigger temper and a habit of solving problems with his fists. He had an eighth-grade education and a police record, and he was familiar with firearms and explosives. His career history was checkered. . . . He was not a rabid racist, but he had no affection for blacks or their 'white nigger' allies who were causing trouble throughout the South." He was also a wannabe cop, "someone who desperately wanted a life in law-enforcement but was unqualified for the job." When the FBI signed him up, he was in heaven:
"Kemp had rescued him from a dreary existence as a part-time bartender, bouncer and machinist . . . ; he was transformed into an undercover agent of the FBI, entering a world of midnight meetings, code names, mail drops, dangerous scrapes, bizarre adventures, and the chance to raise hell without having to worry about the consequences."
Which is pretty much exactly what he did. Though he signed up with the FBI first and the Klan second, he went about the business of becoming a true-blue Klansman with an excess of zeal. He professed great love for his country, but what he really loved was whacking on people, and the FBI assignment gave him carte blanche to do just that: "To obtain information as well as to protect his own cover and his life, he would have to join his fellow Klansmen in what they called 'missionary work' -- assaulting black and white troublemakers and other 'outside agitators' who were undermining the 'southern way of life,' " and he did this with great enthusiasm. When the Freedom Riders came through Birmingham in 1961, the Justice Department subsequently reported, "Rowe was one of the handful most responsible for the violence," a pattern that continued so long as he stayed under the FBI's "protective veil."
Thus "during 1962 and 1963, Rowe had a history of being close to bombings in Birmingham," of which there were so many that the city became known as Bombingham. As to the most appalling of these, the explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963 that killed four young girls, May concludes that -- at best -- "Rowe, whether consciously or inadvertently, steered the FBI away from the real culprits, had difficulty explaining his own whereabouts the night the bomb was placed, and was unable to correctly identify the men who were eventually convicted for bombing the church" and that -- at worst -- "he may possibly have had prior knowledge that the church was going to be bombed or that he actually participated in the action."
Rowe's role in the murder of Viola Liuzzo is equally murky. He was in the car with the men known to have shot at her. Whether he shot at her himself is unclear. In this as in many other aspects of the case, stories have varied (including Rowe's own) and testimony has conflicted. One thing is certain, though: Rowe did nothing to prevent Liuzzo's murder and thus was an accessory to it. So, by extension, was the FBI.
That at least is what many believed then and some believe to this day. The Liuzzo family sued the federal government two decades later "in a wrongful death lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act," a suit thrown out by a judge who made the astonishing claim that "Rowe was not a 'violent, dangerous man,' but a model public servant -- 'perhaps the best informer' in the South." Thus the case ended as it began, in the dark, clouded by mystery and suspicion. That much of the latter is still directed against the FBI is understandable, for its relationship with Gary Thomas Rowe was neither as clean nor as productive as it liked to tell itself. May writes:
"Rowe's achievements as informant were . . . limited and often ambiguous, reflecting the informant system itself. Sometimes, even he wondered whether infiltrating the Klan was necessary; by his calculation, there were about a dozen violent Klansmen in Eastview Klavern No. 13, and everybody knew who they were. Put them under close surveillance, and violence would disappear, he believed. The others in the Klavern were content to listen to racist screeds, watch 'The Birth of a Nation,' and enjoy the companionship of like-minded folks."
That was too easy for the FBI, which under Hoover wanted to play Cops and Robbers and I Spy. If there was too much testosterone in the Klavern, by the same token there was too much in the FBI. It would be nice to think that the FBI has learned something from this, but common sense and history dictate otherwise. So too does Gary May's fine book, which brings back that dreadful time with all too much verisimilitude and tells, in exemplary fashion, a cautionary tale of real importance. Its central figure, Gary Thomas Rowe, died in 1998, "bankrupt and sixty thousand dollars in debt," but the troubling issues raised by his story linger on. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.
to testify against Collie Leroy Wilkins in the murder of Viola Liuzzo in 1965.