TWO CASES involving the FBI and civil rights demonstrators of the '60s have recently been decided by federal courts in Michigan. In the first, the children of Viola Liuzzo, who was shot to death after the Selma voting rights march, sued the government for civil damages, alleging that the FBI had not exercised proper control over its informer, Gary Thomas Rowe, who was present at the time of the killing. After an eight-day trial, Judge Charles Joiner ruled that Mr. Rowe had not been the one to fire the fatal shot and that federal agents could not have been expected to prevent the shooting. In the second case, Walter Bergman, a Freedom Rider who was severely beaten by the Klan, won a suit against the United States because Judge Richard Enslen found that the FBI had ample notice that violence would occur and failed to take action to prevent it.
These cases resulted in different verdicts because the facts were different. The Bergman case was by far the stronger indictment of FBI practice in the southern states in the early '60s. The court found that the FBI had early knowledge that the Klan was planning to beat Freedom Riders when they arrived at the bus station in Birmingham. An informer--the same Gary Thomas Rowe who was involved in the Liuzzo case-- told agents that the local police would not respond immediately, but would give the Klansmen 15 minutes to assault the riders. The infamous Bull Connor was public safety commissioner in Birmingham at that time, and the FBI knew that Mr. Connor had been party to the agreement with the Klan. Mr. Rowe was advised to do nothing that would give him away and to participate in the beating if necessary to preserve his credibility. The only action taken by federal officers to prevent this crime was to notify the local police--in the person of Bull Connor.
If the government had lost the Liuzzo case, the most that could have been said against the bureau was that it failed to control an informer. In the Bergman case, however, government agents knew in advance the details, the location and the timing of a crime and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it. The vicious and severe beatings that resulted injured dozens of law-abiding citizens and left Mr. Bergman in a wheelchair for life. Such callous indifference toward the safety and the rights of civil rights workers was, unfortunately, a hallmark of J. Edgar Hoover's leadership of the bureau. Harassment of movement leaders, refusal to place black agents in the South and an overemphasis on preserving good relations with racist sheriffs were all policies set at the top. Today, FBI policies established by Director William Webster set a different tone. As Mr. Bergman said after the ruling in his case was announced on Tuesday, "We have a better America in 1983 than we had in 1961."