Murray Polner: Review of Gary May's "The Informant: The FBI, The Ku Klux Klan, and The Murder of Viola Liuzzo," (Yale University Press, 2005)
He now turns his attention to the civil rights era in Alabama when a Detroit housewife, Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five, was killed after she went South to do her bit to help win voting rights for blacks.
Like millions of Americans who watched on TV, Liuzzo was incensed and shocked by the violence against civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, police and state troopers wielding whips, baseball bats, cattle prods, and then using tear gas attacked the marchers. It was quickly dubbed Bloody Sunday. <\
Born into a poor family, Liuzzo spent her early years in Georgia and Tennessee. “Experience had taught her,” May notes, “to be an underdog fighting the injustices of an indifferent world, although the family didn’t embrace the racism that often characterized impoverished southern whites.” Inspired by the Pettus assault, she left her family and studies at Wayne State University for Alabama to work for civil rights for the people she watched being assailed on TV. Almost at the same time, a white Unitarian minister James Reeb, unjustly forgotten, was struck by four thugs as his murderer screamed while he lay dying on a Southern street, his skull fractured, “Here’s how it feels to be a nigger down here.”
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).
White liberals and moderates were driven to cover by “respectable” White Citizens Councils throughout the Bible Belt. For those of us who were in the South before and after the civil rights battle began, it is easy to believe James Silver, an Ole Miss historian, was right on the mark when he called Mississippi (and could have added Alabama as well) a “closed society.” Two rabbis in Jackson and Hattiesburg, Perry Nussbaum and Charles Mantinband, for example, publicly denounced the bigoted underclass but also went directly after their far wealthier supporters. It’s easy to forget what the Deep South was like during those years. Both states were under the control of the most lawless elements. A police state, a white southerner called it. Another described it as fascism. Whatever it was, phones were tapped, mail opened, faculty fired for expressing dissenting opinions, and clergy warned. If not acquiescence, then silence was demanded—and too often received.
Still, some whites tried to fight back. David R. Davies’ excellent paper, “Missisippi Journalists, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Closed Society, 1960-1964,” presented at the 1994 convention of the American Journalism Historian Association, describes “five newspaper editors who befriended blacks and challenged the racial mores of Mississippi” even though their papers struggled against the loss of advertisers and readers. Hodding Carter Jr.’s Delta Democrat-Times managed to hang on. One who did not was P.D. East and his Petal Paper, once posted a fake ad in 1957 “offering prime lumber for making crosses” to be burned on front lawns and then, his circulation sinking, fled to Alabama.
A strange choice, perhaps, but after all East was a born and bred southerner once part of the disappearing southern working class white liberals. Certainly, Alabama was no better with George Wallace as its Governor and sheriffs like Bull Connor and Jim Clark dominating their counties. It is in this environment of poor white class resentments and the devastating history of slavery that the fourth wave of the Klan could rise again and flourish, even into the north and Middle West.
To the FBI, under the unaccountable J. Edgar Hoover, never a supporter of the civil rights movement, was handed the task of rooting out the Klan. As they had done inside the Communist Party (Victor Navasky, in his recent book A Matter of Opinion, quotes a former FBI agent poking fun writing in The Nation about the use of CP informants: “through its dues-paying FBI contingent, it had become he largest single financial contributor to the coffers of the Communist Party”) and also within anti-Vietnam War ranks, they recruited spies, paying them, rendering them immune to persecution for crimes they might commit, and hoping for positive results.
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.”
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