From The Mason Historiographiki
Gary May. The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. IX+431. ISBN 0-300-10635-I
Using files from the FBI and the Department of Justice supported by newspaper accounts, Gary May has retold the stories of some of Alabama’s greatest racial atrocities during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. May’s research confirms the Ku Klux Klan connection to much of the white violence in reaction to black demands for the end of discrimination, but more importantly, May finds that the FBI had advanced knowledge of some of the Klan’s actions and did nothing to stop it. This knowledge began with the Klan’s attack on Congress of Racial Equality Freedom riders at a Birmingham bus station in 1961 and continued until the killing Viola Liuzzo in 1965 after the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.
The FBI got its intelligence on Klan activities from a paid informant named Tommy Rowe, a Birmingham thug who fit the profile of the type of person the Klan wanted for its “mission work.” He desired to be a policeman but did not have a high school education, but he also was a brawler who frequented some of Birmingham’s sleaziest night spots. When he was approached by the FBI about becoming an informant, Rowe was honored. With his reputation as a night club brawler, he was quickly accepted into the Klan’s inner circles. May’s description of Rowe’s questionable relationship with the FBI during the years leading up to the Liuzzo murder is one of the strengths of the book. May analyzes the many inconsistencies in Rowe’s personality that made him a womanizer, a braggart, a thug, and a liar, while he also provided important inside information about the Klan to the FBI. His idiosyncrasies were known throughout the FBI including by J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI felt Rowe’s personality made him a good informant.
Much of the book examines Rowe’s trip to Selma in which he was in the car with three other Klan members when Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker from Detroit, was killed in her car along the road from Selma to Montgomery. Rowe’s immediate report to the FBI led to a break in the case less than 24 hours after the murder. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Rowe testified against the three other Klansmen who were eventually convicted of violating the civil rights of Mrs. Liuzzo. Eventually, the convicted Klansmen all claimed that Rowe had actually shot Mrs. Liuzzo, but because of his immunity, Rowe was never brought to trial.
May does shed any light on the mystery of who actually shot Mrs. Liuzzo and does a good job of remaining neutral about his feelings. May also opens the possibility that Rowe was involved with the Sixteenth Street Church bombings that killed four girls in Birmingham in 1963. May’s point is that the FBI did little to control Rowe’s behavior even though he always seemed to be very close to the action when atrocities were committed against blacks.
The story is fascinating, and May does an excellent job of sorting through the facts to make the events understandable. Since the book covers material that had already been well-investigated by national media before the publication of this book, May’s retelling of the story in a readable dialogue may be his most important contribution. May sees a broader use for retelling this story as he reminds readers that use of informants continues in the age of terrorism. With knowledge of previous FBI activities, we are reminded of the importance of government control over informant activities.
Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007
May’s work seems a bit shallow because he does not offer any argument as to how this story fits into the historiography of the period. He makes no argument about the meaning of this story other than to reiterate the close connection between the FBI and an informant of questionable character. Is this incident an anomaly or is part of a greater pattern of government abuse of the civil rights of its citizens? Certainly the civil rights atrocities that occurred in Alabama in the 1960’s were a part of the awakening of Americans to the plight of blacks in the South. How did the lack of action on the part of the FBI fit into the changing attitudes of Americans about the need for federal action in the South? Were the persons like Tommy Rowe who committed the atrocities so far from the American mainstream that their hate-filled actions caused a backlash in the rest of the U.S. against racism? Without any attempt to answer questions pertinent to the changing attitudes towards race relations in the country, May’s story offers little more than entertaining reading without offering a greater understanding of the era.
May offers a tantalizing tidbit of information in the beginning of his story when he equates the childhoods of Viola Liuzzo and Tommy Rowe. He states that they “both grew up in the South in near poverty; both left school in the eighth grade; both were married multiple times; both searched for personal fulfillment in self-created crusades” (p. xi). He later explains that the Ku Klux Klan of the twentieth century had become filled lower class persons who saw justice only in terms of black and white. He tries to explain the odyssey of Viola Liuzzo who found injustice in the same racial divide. But these two case studies cannot explain the divergent paths of the two people. Was racism the ultimate act of masculine power? Was crusading for the rights of blacks a reflection of a feminine protection of the weak? From May’s work, we are left without a greater understanding of the societal forces that brought Rowe and Liuzzo together for only one violent moment.
No one was ever convicted of the murder of Viola Liuzzo. This result is like the outcomes of many murders of southern blacks. The difference in this case was that Liuzzo was a white woman who was riding alone in an automobile with a black man. The fear that gripped white southerners and allowed them to be brutal and then to design a justice system cover-up their actions is part of the history of the South. May’s book is informative about one such case, but does little to deconstruct the society that allowed this to happen.