On the Trail of the FBI's KKK Source: What I Discovered


Gary May is Professor of History and Director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at the University of Delaware. He is the author of the recently published book, The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo (Yale University Press).

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Perhaps I’ve read too many murder mysteries and police procedurals, seen too many movies and watched too much television—-especially the CSI shows that multiply like crab grass. It may explain why lately I’ve been drawn to historical characters whose lives ended violently and whose deaths have an air of mystery about them. I’ve become a self-styled "closer," the name police give to their colleagues who work the cold cases whose solution have eluded them.

In my second book, Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington, I tried to understand how a brilliant young man from Ridgewood, New Jersey, who seemed destined for a distinguished career in American government in the 1940s, associated with American Communists, and Soviet agents and was eventually convicted of perjury and sent to Lewisburg Penitentiary where he was murdered by inmates in 1954. My research led me to conclude that Remington was not simply a victim of McCarthyism but was guilty of having lied under oath about his Communist connections and, while not a master spy, did pass government records to Elizabeth Bentley, a Soviet courier, during World War II to. I also discovered that the Justice Department deliberately misrepresented the way Remington died. He was not defending himself during a fist fight with fellow prisoners, as the government claimed, but was asleep when viciously attacked by men who wanted to prove their patriotism by killing a Communist. Case closed, or so I believed.

While working on the Remington story, I became fascinated by an extraordinary phenomenon occurring in the American South beginning in the 1990s-–the reopening of Civil Rights cold cases in an effort to finally bring to justice the killers of a host of innocent African Americans. David Halberstam called it “little Nurembergs,” as one by one the killers of Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, Ben Chester White and the four young victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing were found guilty of murder by Southern juries.

These investigations led me to examine the murder of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman to lose her life in the struggle for equal rights. The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, published this month by Yale University Press, presents my findings.

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.

Rowe, a nightclub bouncer, brawler and self-proclaimed “hell-raiser,” was recruited by the FBI in March 1960 to join the Eastview Klavern of the Alabama Knights of the KKK. Although his FBI handler warned him that he was not an FBI agent and must avoid violent activities, Rowe learned quickly that to protect his “cover” he had to take a leading role in the Klan’s attacks on civil rights workers. In May, 1961, Rowe learned that the Klan was planning to assault a group of Freedom Riders when they arrived in Birmingham and he became the liaison between the Klan and Public Safety Director Bull Connor, who gave the Klan fifteen minutes to “beat” the Freedom Riders “until they looked like a bulldog got a hold of them.” Rowe warned his FBI handler of the immanent attack, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kept it secret from Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Bureau did nothing to stop the attack.

The FBI’s response to Rowe’s actions that day revealed how an informant can dominate his handler and escape punishment for his crimes. Although a Justice Department investigation later concluded that “of the hundreds [involved]…Rowe was one of the handful most responsible for the violence,” the FBI covered up his actions that day. Rowe told his contact that he had beaten an innocent bystander but the Agent lied to the FBI’s Special Agent-in-Charge, assuring him that “Rowe was not personally involved in the fighting…” Instead of being arrested and his relationship with the FBI terminated, the Bureau rewarded Rowe with a cash bonus of $175 and praised him as “without doubt the most alert, intelligent, productive and reliable informant…currently being operated…”

During the years that followed, Rowe rose within the ranks of the Eastview Klavern and continued to attack African-Americans and civil rights workers with impunity, knowing that the FBI would protect him. The same cloak of immunity which covered Rowe also extended to his closest colleagues inside the Klan whose prosecution would have implicated Rowe, allowing them to get away with crimes which included assault and perhaps murder. Following the Liuzzo shooting in March 1965, he quickly made a deal with the Justice Department: In exchange for immunity from prosecution, he agreed to testify against his fellow Klansmen. On the strength of his eye-witness testimony, the Klansmen were convicted of violating Mrs. Liuzzo’s civil rights, but served less than ten years in prison. Rowe was reward by his grateful government with a gift of ten thousand dollars, a new identity and a job as an Assistant U.S. Marshall in California.

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.

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southern students for choice - 8/19/2006

Mr. May, you can also make the point that studying the Klan isn't an attempt to define the South, either today or generations ago, rather it's an attempt to study an extremist group which was always recognized as an extremist group, even when it was tolerated by some in power. When it was most tolerated, from roughly the turn of the century to the 1950s, I think of it as having been more like an open-air mental institution for misfits and thugs which the state tried to corral. But that's my opinion. Thanks for your perspective, Mr. May, it's interesting and I basically agree with it.

Kenneth Chad Keith - 8/4/2005

I believe you misunderstood what I was saying. I am intrigued by history and believe that those who pay no heed to the past are doomed to relive it. What I am referring to is how people not from the South are always bringing up the klan, as if that is such an important part of our history. There are much more important things to talk about than a bunch of ignorant rednecks in white hoods.

Gary May - 7/30/2005

I found Mr. Keith's recommndation that Americans forget their past extremely disturbing. With such an attitude, I wonder why he bothers to visit the History News Network. I don't think I have to defend the study of history to this audience but I will remind Mr. Keith of his fellow Southerner William Faulkner's comment that "the past is never dead. It isn't even past."

Kenneth Chad Keith - 7/23/2005

I do not understand why northerners are so fascinated by the klan. I consider this "organization" to be a shame and disgrace to the good name of the South and would prefer to never hear anything about them again. These northern intellectual-types seem to think that all Southerners have a white hooded robe hanging in the closet and sneak out at night to burn crosses and beat on black people. Truth is, I've lived in the South my whole life and have never(no, not once) seen a klansmen or even anyone pretending to be one. Most Southerners I know would be just as disgusted by the actions of the klan as you people are. This is a shameful part of the past that needs to be forgotten.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/25/2005

CIA traditionally and routinely used worst type of drug-traffikers and murderers all over the world to not only
infiltrate radical or terrorist groups, but to support the economic and political climate suitable to American business interests.
The very determination of 'terrorist activity' by USG usually stems directly from its economic, ideological and political nature, i.e. it has to be perceived, as being contradictory, or at the least not supportive towards US interests in the region, and not by the core interests of the local people or by the considerations of legal nature.
Take Central and Latin America, take Africa, take Afghanistan, Iraq, South-East Asia, etc.
Everywhere you find the same ol' good story.
In fact, corruption (in a broad sense of this term), not
the democracy and freedom ideals as it's claimed by official versions, was and remains the main tool of not only US intelligence services abroad and at home, but of the US foreign policy, the former being just the direct or indirect derivative of the latter.

Mr. Luker emphasizes "a refusal by lower intelligence officers to make it available where it counts up the ranks.", trying to implant the ahistorical idea of the heavy addiction to strict legality suffered by high-ranked FBI and CIA officers versus some 'bad boys' among the lower-ranked ones (and I suspect - to obfuscate the guilt of the rich and powerful of this country in all other situations and issues, including current ones, where their guilt was unequivocally proven by History).
However, massive and mostly open human rights violations against blacks and other minorities in this country in the past were not put to the end mostly because of the racism, or silent support or indifference of the central (Washington's) authorities. As soon, as it became necessary to the folks in federal power, they were able
to squash (in great measure) radical groups, organizations, and the racist culture in general in no time, (comparing to the length of the old, racist period.) On Lyndon Johnson's part, who himself was deeply biased on racial issues, that decision was not so much moral or humanistic, as business one, dictated by the
internal situation of those days.

Gary May - 6/21/2005

I'm not oppossed to the use of informants entirely, as Mr. Luker assumes. I do find it very problematic when intelligence services recruit outsiders and place them inside terrorist groups.Their very position as an outsider requires them to prove their bona fides by committing violent acts. The FBI was more successsful in buying information from Klansmen (as in the MiBurn Case)than in putting informants inside the Klan. I think it more beneficial for the CIA to "turn" an already existing member of a terrorist cell than relying on a process that produced a rogue informant like Gary Thomas Rowe.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/21/2005

If Professor May is arguing that the lesson of Gary Thomas Rowe and the FBI is that we must avoid having plants within terrorist organizations, it seems to me that this is not a constructive recommendation. What he certainly does show is that good intelligence can be obscured by a refusal by lower intelligence officers to make it available where it counts up the ranks. But our problem in, say, Iraq prior to the invasion was that our intelligence was deeply, tragically flawed because we were unable to infiltrate Saddam's inner circle and we relied on "intelligence" from parties who clearly had a dog in the race -- and it wasn't ours.