1965 - The FBI’s mole in the KKK murdered a black man while under bureau protection, and got away wi
Halfway between Selma and Montgomery, on a dark stretch of Alabama highway, a white woman was driving a sedan. In the seat beside her was Leroy Morton, a black man. It was 1965. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a 39-year-old medical student and mother of five from Detroit, was transporting civil rights activists to and from the Freedom March. When she heard about the march she told her husband, “There are just too many people who stand around talking.” She got in her car and drove to Alabama. Before returning home, she called her husband and told him, “I’m very happy, don’t worry.” She didn’t realize that in Selma, she and Morton had been spotted by Ku Klux Klan members. They were now following her on the highway. They rolled down their windows, sped up beside Liuzzo’s car, pointed their rifles, and fired. Liuzzo was shot in the head.
Morton lived, but Liuzzo would be the only white woman to die in the civil rights movement. It was this event — not the numerous murders of black people — that would cause President Johnson to urge the KKK to “return to decent society” in a televised news conference. He went on to say that since the FBI had located the murderers, “The whole nation can take heart from the fact that there are those in the south who believe in justice in racial matters and who are determined not to stand for acts of violence and terror.”
Johnson then named four men as the perpetrators. But only three would be convicted of a crime and sentenced to a mere 10 years. The fourth man, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., would serve no time and never be convicted of that crime or any other. Rowe was an FBI informant planted in the Ku Klux Klan.
If at first it seemed understandable that an informant might occasionally find himself at crime scenes during undercover work, Liuzzo’s murder dredged up several other incidents. Over the coming years, Rowe would be linked to some of the most atrocious attacks on civil rights activists, with the FBI playing the role of bystander at best, and abettor at worst. J. Edgar Hoover would tellRowe, “You’re one of the greatest Americans this country has ever had.”
In1959, Gary Thomas Rowe was a 26-year-old machinist and sometime bartender. As Gary May explains in his book on Rowe, The Informant, the FBI actively sought informants with shady histories. “The most productive informants are criminally inclined,” he writes. And Rowe certainly fit that bill: He had a police record, an eighth grade education, a “hair-trigger temper and a habit of solving problems with his fists… he was familiar with firearms and explosives. His career history was checkered.” An FBI recruiter, aware that the KKK was trying to recruit Rowe knocked on his door one day and asked if he wanted to go undercover in the Klan. Rowe immediately responded, “you’re on.” According to May, he was “not a rabid racist, but he had no affection for blacks or their ‘white n*gger’ allies who were causing trouble throughout the South.”
(Though the threshold for “rabid” here may be in dispute.) Rowe had desperately wanted to be a cop, but the job required a high-school diploma. With this undercover gig, Rowe could weave a more appealing mythology as a kind of “redneck James Bond.” Rowe joined the Klan’s Eastview 13 Klavern, known as the most violent wing of the KKK.
In 1963, the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists deliberately violated Jim Crow laws in the deep south by riding public transportation, arrived in Birmingham, unaware that the local police had made an agreement with the KKK. Over coffee, a Birmingham police officer told Rowe that the KKK would be given 15 minute to “beat ’em, bomb ’em, kill ’em … there will be absolutely no arrests. We don’t ever want another Freedom Rider coming through Alabama again.”
Rowe (center right, back to camera) participating in the beating of George Webb. (Oxford University Press)
On a gorgeous spring afternoon, hundreds of KKK members made their way into a Greyhound bus station carrying chains, sticks, and clubs. “Get the shoeshine boy out!” someone yelled, “the Klan is here!” The mob then brutally attacked busloads of people. Oblivious to the Freedom Rider gathering, a young black man, George Webb, had arranged to pick up his fiancée from the station before their wedding. They kissed in the terminal and were spotted by Rowe and a group of other Klan members. The men slammed George Webb in the head with a baseball bat and beat, kicked, and punched him once he was down. A journalist snapped a photograph. In the photo, Rowe’s broad back can be seen as he attacks Webb, while an angry mob gathers around.
Rowe had given the FBI three weeks advanced warning about the attack and they had done nothing to prevent it. After the photo of Rowe beating Webb came out, his FBI handler told him that if anyone asked him about the photo, he was to lie and say it wasn’t him. Then the FBI gave him a $175 bonus for a job well done.
After Liuzzo’s murder, Rowe’s relationship with the FBI became public knowledge. He was placed in witness protection and assumed a new name, Thomas Moore. Meanwhile, Hoover—who had stood next to President Johnson during his televised address as he declared Viola Liuzzo’s death a tragedy—covertly ran a smear campaign against her in order to downplay the incident. He suggested that she was sleeping with black men, doing drugs, and had abandoned her children. The campaign worked. Ladies Home Journalran a poll asking if Liuzzo was a good mother, and 55 percent of respondents said no.
After the Liuzzo story came out, others stories emerged. Rowe had been tiedto numerous bombings of black homes and businesses, including the horrific bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls. On the night of the bombing of a black-owned luxury motel, Rowe’s handler couldn’t locate him for nearly five hours. Rowe would tell the FBI that the bombing was orchestrated by black Muslims — not the KKK.
In1975, Rowe was called to give testimony before a Senate hearing on the role of FBI informants. He arrived in what is surely one strangest outiftsin the history of Senate testimony. In an attempt to conceal his identity, Rowe wrapped a sheet over his head with jaggedly cut eye holes. The outfit strongly resembled a KKK hood.
New revelations included that he had once beaten people with chains at a county fair, and said that his “instructions were to try to sleep with as many [KKK] wives as I could.”
But perhaps the most striking thing about Rowe’s testimony is what it revealed about the FBI. When asked if the agency condemned his violence, he said his handlers told him that by law they must tell him not to participate in it, but the most important thing was to “get the information.” When describing the KKK’s numerous acts of violence, Rowe maintained that he had repeatedly warned the FBI about the KKK’s plans — cases “in the high dozens” — and that they had done nothing.
In1978, as he was negotiating “blanket” immunity from the FBI, he revealed that during a 1963 riot in Birmingham, he shot a black man in the chest, killing him. Twenty-two black men were reported shot that night (though an investigator suggested that the number could as high as 50).
That same year, Rowe published his memoir, Undercover with the KKK. In writing it, he had rebuffed his publishers’ suggestion that he tidy up the narrative by showing “a complete change of opinion” and announce himself as a civil rights advocate. Instead, he reveals a window into the mind of the southern white male invigorated by a culture of violence. Rowe holds waring ideas that black people deserve civil rights and fair housing, but also should not be allowed interracial marriage and integrated schools. This, he acknowledges, “is a contradiction to be found in nearly every Southern mind.”
Rowe’s book became the inspiration for a made for television movie, which portrayed the now-acknowledged murderer sympathetically. The executives who produced it called an emergency meeting to discuss nixing the project after Rowe admitted to shooting the unnamed black man, but decided to proceed anyway. The film, also titled Undercover with the KKK, came out in 1979, the same year Liuzzo’s children filed suit against the FBI.
In 1980, the Justice Department investigated Rowe and released a 302-page report. Their findings included that, “Rowe was one of the handful most responsible for the violence” during the attack on the 1963 Freedom Riders. They also found the FBI had known about and covered up his nonfatal attacks.
Rowe died in witness protection in 1998. He was bankrupt, $60,000 in debt, and working as a private security guard. He would reflect on his time as an FBI informant writing, “I could not help wondering exactly what we had accomplished.”