The Informant, historian Gary May reveals the untold story of the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, shot to death by members of the violent Birmingham Ku Klux Klan at the end of Martin Luther King's historic Voting Rights March in 1965. The case drew national attention and was solved almost instantly, because one of the Klansman present during the shooting was Gary Thomas Rowe, an undercover FBI informant. At the time, Rowe's information and subsequent testimony were heralded as a triumph of law enforcement. But as Gary May reveals in this provocative and powerful book, Rowe's history of collaboration with both the Klan and the FBI was far more complex.
Based on previously unexamined FBI and Justice Department Records, The Informant demonstrates that in their ongoing efforts to protect Rowe's cover, the FBI knowingly became an accessory to some of the most grotesque crimes of the Civil Rights era--including a vicious attack on the Freedom Riders and perhaps even the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
A tale of a renegade informant and an intelligence system ill-prepared to deal with threats from within, The Informant offers a dramatic and cautionary tale about what can happen when secret police power goes unchecked.
May, whose previous explorations of American history in works such as Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington were critically acclaimed for their vivid writing and painstaking research, has turned his formidable talents to restoring a controversial episode in the civil rights struggle. While slain activist Viola Liuzzo is far from a household name today, her murder in 1965 at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan immediately after the Selma, Ala., voting rights march was a national sensation. President Johnson kept close tabs on the investigation. When suspects were taken into custody almost immediately, it seemed that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was doing its job brilliantly; federal informant Gary Thomas Rowe, who fingered the suspects, had infiltrated the Alabama Klan five years earlier. But as May lucidly describes, Rowe's own role in the murder was suspicious, and his experiences with the KKK, which often crossed the line dividing observer from participant, linked him with other notorious race crimes of the era, including the Birmingham church bombing. May succeeds brilliantly at weaving his threads into an engrossing narrative, even while maintaining the three-dimensional humanity of both Liuzzo and Rowe. Contemporary resonance is provided by linking the FBI's handling of Rowe with the challenges today's bureau faces in the war on terror, which must also rely on unscrupulous and violent informants. This is popular history at its best and shines a long overdue light on a dark chapter in the FBI's past. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Yale University Press
May 09, 2005
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