It was an apropos end to an exciting week when I received Gary May's email yesterday, announcing the publication of his new book, The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo. I haven't mentioned this yet, but in addition to traveling to Mississippi for the 41st annual Chaney Goodman Schwerner Memorial on the land of civil rights pioneers Cornelius and Mable Steele, I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama and spent time with former SNCC workers Scott B. Smith and Linda Dehnat. ScottB took me all around Montgomery, Lowndes County and Selma, to teach me about his work with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in the 1960s. I will get into more of the details very soon, but it was just Tuesday that I stopped with ScottB at the memorial to Viola Liuzzo on Rt. 80, outside Selma, where she was murdered by Klansmen after she'd traveled from Detroit to march with all the others in the Selma to Montgomery March. (A good account of the story is here.)
Here's an excerpt from a recent review by Murray Polner:
The Informants is a model of painstaking historical research coupled with an exemplary writing style, vivid, dramatic, and suspenseful. Serious historical writing May proves need not be dull.
What is new and different about the book are May’s portraits of Klan members and primarily the FBI informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, a violent, angry liar, who loved nothing better than hanging around cops, was planted inside the Klan, in Bessemer, Alabama, where many members and sympathizers worked in the steel mills, their activities often approved, subtly and otherwise, by Birmingham’s ruling elite. (Readers might also turn to Diane McWhorter’s fascinating Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution)....
The problem, as May points out, is that Rowe, a member of Eastview Klavern No. 13 in Bessemer, rose rapidly within Klan ranks. He joined in meting out savage beatings of blacks and white sympathizers. When the Klan beat Freedom Riders badly in the Birmingham bus terminal in 1961, none of the attackers, including Rowe, were deemed culpable, because local police were in on the plot. The FBI, which had advance knowledge about the assault, refused to intervene because they wanted Klan members to trust Rowe. May speculates that Rowe may well have been involved in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham where four small black girls died. “Hoover,” May goes on, “blocked persecution…in part to protect Rowe” and another FBI snitch, who was even more dangerous than Rowe.
He also suggests, but cannot prove, that while Rowe was present in the automobile shadowing Liuzzo’s car, he urged another Klan member to kill Liuzzo. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center once accurately portrayed Rowe as “a loud, bragging, know-it-all thug who had been made a hero for what would have sent most men to prison.”
But thanks to Gary May, we do know that the murder of Viola Liuzzo took a devastating toll on her family. Some misguided Americans wrote her family obscene and bigoted letters and castigating their husband and mother for going South to help other Americans.
For May, this business of using criminals as spies raises “the use of questionable, even illegal means to achieve a beneficial end,” a question he later suggests raises a new set of questions in today’s “war against terrorism.”
During the sixties, the FBI claimed to have 2,000 Rowe-like informers inside various Klan groups. Much about them is still secret. The FBI will not allow researchers access to their files, information how well or badly they did, and what crimes, if any, they committed while serving as informers. “It is unlikely that such records will become available to historians in the near future,” May explains, “because the Bureau fiercely guards informant identities and activities.”
And here is Gary May, himself, expanding on the issue of using informants, noted by Polner:
My research in FBI, Justice Department and the Liuzzo family attorney’s records convinced me that the Liuzzo Case was unique and offered important lessons for our current war against terrorism. Unlike the other well known Civil Rights murders, the crime was quickly solved because one of the four Klansmen who shot Liuzzo on an Alabama highway following the conclusion of the 1965 Voting Rights March, was an FBI informant. As soon as Gary Thomas Rowe could get away from his associates, he quickly reported the murder to his FBI handler and, within hours, the Klansmen were apprehended. President Lyndon Johnson announced their arrest over nation-wide television. In none of the other civil rights murders was an FBI informant so deeply involved and an examination of Rowe’s career led to disturbing conclusions about the role of informants then and now-- their activities can actually produce the very tragedies they are supposed to prevent....
Although the Klansmen would later charge that Rowe himself murdered Liuzzo, which led her family to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the FBI in the 1980s, a judge ruled against them and evidence I uncovered indicated that another Klansmen fired the fatal shots. The Klansmen responsible for Liuzzo’s murder are dead as is Rowe and the case is officially closed, but—in fact, it deserves to be examined and discussed for what it tells us about the dangers of recruiting informants and putting them into terrorist groups. To reassure their associates that they are truly committed to their cause, they too must commit brutal acts. And to hide their association with despicable characters, intelligence agencies become silent partners in the crimes their informants commit. I hope that as the U.S. seeks better “human intelligence” in the war on terrorism, The Informant will provide a cautionary tale about the role played by informants in that struggle. Along with the newly reopened case of Emmett Till and the start on June 13 of the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, accused of killing James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964, I recommend opening, intellectually if not legally, the case of Viola Liuzzo. It has too much to teach us to be closed forever.
Text of memorial reads:
IN MEMORY OF OUR SISTER
WHO GAVE HER LIFE IN THE
STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO
VOTE..... MARCH 25, 1965
PRESENTED BY SCLC/WOMEN
EVELYN G. LOWERY, NATIONAL CONVENER
THE SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP
JOSEPH LOWERY, PRESIDENT
Viola Liuzzo with her children, UPI Photo, hosted by Civil Rights Movement Veterans
Viola Liuzzo Memorial, Rt. 80, outside Selma, Alabama, by Benjamin T. Greenberg