A cautionary tale

June 13, 2005|By Gary May

THE BODY OF Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi 50 years ago for allegedly whistling at a white woman, was exhumed this month for an autopsy, part of the Justice Department's decision to re-examine that ancient case.

And today, Edgar Ray Killen, called "Preacher" by his colleagues in the Ku Klux Klan, is scheduled to go on trial in a Mississippi courtroom in connection with the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. His prosecution, like the Till investigation, is part of what David Halberstam calls "little Nurembergs," the reopening of the civil rights era's cold cases in an effort to bring closure to the victims' families and send the message that racially motivated murder will never be permitted.

The case of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman to die in the civil rights movement, also merits consideration.

On March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of the voting rights march in which Ms. Liuzzo participated, she was shot and killed on an Alabama highway by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. What makes the Liuzzo tragedy especially significant is that one of the Klansman was an FBI informant. His activities inside the Alabama Klan shed light on how intelligence agencies used informants in the 1960s and still use them in the current war against terrorism.

The experience of Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the FBI's chief informant inside the Alabama Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, suggests that an informant's activities can actually produce the very tragedies he is supposed to prevent.

Mr. Rowe, a nightclub bouncer, brawler and self-proclaimed "hell raiser," was recruited by the FBI in March 1960 and encouraged 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, Mr. Rowe fancied himself to be an "undercover man." He discovered that in order to protect his "cover" (and because he enjoyed a good fight), he needed to take a leading role in the Klan's attacks on civil rights workers.

In May 1961, Mr. 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. Mr. Connor gave the Klan 15 minutes to "beat" the Freedom Riders "until they looked like a bulldog got a hold of them."

Mr. Rowe warned his FBI handler of the imminent attack, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kept it secret from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and the bureau did nothing to stop the attack. A local news photographer snapped a picture of Mr. Rowe and other Klansmen beating an African-American with their fists and pipes; the victim was not a Freedom Rider but an ordinary Birmingham citizen who was at the bus terminal to pick up his fiancM-ie. Mr. Rowe also assaulted a news photographer and a television reporter before the Klan's time ran out and police arrived on the scene.

The FBI's response to Mr. Rowe's actions that day revealed how an informant can dominate his handler and escape punishment for his crimes. Although a later Justice Department investigation 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.

Mr. Rowe told his contact that he had beaten the innocent bystander but that 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 Mr. Rowe with a cash bonus of $175 and praised him as "without doubt the most alert, intelligent, productive and reliable informant ... currently being operated."

In the years that followed, Mr. 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 from prosecution. 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 witness testimony, the Klansmen were convicted of violating Ms. Liuzzo's civil rights, but they served less than 10 years in prison. Mr. Rowe was again rewarded by a grateful Justice Department with a gift of $10,000, a new identity and a job as an assistant U.S. marshall in California.

Mr. Rowe's experiences suggest 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.

The Klansmen responsible for Ms. Liuzzo's murder are dead, as is Mr. Rowe, and the case is officially closed. But as the United States seeks better "human intelligence" in the war on terrorism, we should recall George Santayana's warning that those who do not understand the past are condemned to repeat it.

Gary May, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, is the author of The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo.

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