When Gary Thomas Rowe moved to Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s, he desperately wanted to be a policeman. Born in 1933 in Savannah, Rowe spent his twenties helping ATF agents bust Georgia moonshiners in exchange for surplus rifles. He applied for a job with the Birmingham Sheriff’s Department, only to be declined for lying on his application. He instead became a “cop buff” who rode along with local officers; Rowe’s new friends turned a blind eye towards his regular carousing and bar brawls. “He was young, twenty-six, and strong,” Gary May writes, “with a hair-trigger temper and a habit of solving problems with his fists.”
Though Rowe harbored no particular racial animus, many of his police friends were members of the Ku Klux Klan and implored him to join. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, so did white backlash, with Birmingham becoming a center for both. Rowe initially avoided the group, as he considered the Klan “a bunch of assholes,” until the Federal Bureau of Investigation approached him as a potential informer. Over the next five years, Rowe played cops and robbers for real – a fantasy indulged at great expense to the FBI’s reputation and the lives of several activists.
Rowe’s career began through the Klan’s instigation. Loyal McWhorter,1 a Birmingham Klansman who wanted Rowe to join his Klavern, called the local FBI office to investigate whether Rowe worked for the FBI. McWhorter unwittingly planted a seed in the Bureau’s mind; J. Edgar Hoover, pressed to crack down on hate groups, planned to infiltrate the Klan as he had the radical Left. In April 1960, Special Agent Barry Kemp visited Rowe and told him it would be “a great service to the country” if he infiltrated the local Klan. Rowe, for whom “the FBI was God,” didn’t hesitate for a moment: “You’re on.”
The Ku Klux Klan, largely dormant since its heyday in the 1920s, returned with a vengeance after World War II. In the ’50s, Black activists began an increasingly bold campaign of protest and civil disobedience. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower made tentative steps towards equality; the Supreme Court issued its Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, demanding an end to legal segregation. A new generation of Black leaders – Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. – emerged in these years, giving the Civil Rights Movement a force, language and moral energy that white Americans couldn’t ignore.
Resistance to integration took many forms. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who filibustered many a Civil Rights bill, invoked constitutional principle; his Southern Manifesto denounced liberal judges who “substitute naked power for established law.” Their complaints echoed outside the South; Arizona’s Barry Goldwater charged that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 demonstrated “the hallmarks of the police state and landmarks in the destruction of a free society.” Such complaints showed little concern for legal discrimination and armed force against Black voters; imagined Federal oppression trumped the realities of Jim Crow. Goldwater and Russell made moral turpitude sound not only principled, but noble.
Other politicians linked Civil Rights with communism, an effective ploy in the age of Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy. Easier still because, at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, some of the most visible Black leaders – Paul Robeson, Benjamin Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois – were indeed communists or communist sympathizers. Right wingers from the John Birch Society to Mississippi Senator James Eastland pointed to Stalin’s endorsement, in 1928, of an autonomous “Black Belt Republic” in the Southern states (a policy the Comintern scrapped soon afterwards as unfeasible). No difference exists, apparently, between wanting integrated schools and overthrowing the Republic.
Despite his avowal that Communism was “cold atheism wrapped in the garments of materialism,” Martin Luther King’s relationships with former communists Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin earned unwanted scrutiny, not least from the FBI. A photograph of King visiting Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School in September 1957 (denounced as a “Communist training school” in the press) was slapped across billboards across the South.2 In 1967, after 13 years of such harassment, King lashed out at America’s “morbid fear of Communism” which distracted Americans from “poverty, racism, and militarism.” Which only steeled reactionaries like Strom Thurmond, who insisted that King was “controlled by Communists.”
There were the White Citizens Councils, organizations of civic leaders who organized “Massive Resistance” throughout the South. Birmingham, where Gary Rowe lived, hosted a chapter headed by the town’s “Big Mules,” businessmen like Sidney Smyer and Albert Boutwell who dominated Alabama’s Black Belt3 and exercised an outsized influence in state politics. During the ’30s they’d allied with US Steel, the region’s leading employer, against the New Deal; the Big Mules mobilized strikebreakers and National Guardsmen to crush unions at Birmingham’s steel factories. Now, they raised the same hue and cry against “outside agitators” destroying the South’s carefully maintained racial order.
Behind the velvet glove lurked a mailed fist; what George Wallace called the “night people.” The Third Ku Klux Klan was really a loose collection of regional cells; in the early ’60s, Robert Shelton created the United Klans of America in Tuscaloosa, which did little to curb factional disputes. What united them was an eagerness to enforce white supremacy at all costs. In Birmingham, Klansmen exploded so many bombs that the Smithfield neighborhood was christened “Dynamite Hill”; the city itself, “Bombingham.” Sometimes these outrages responded to Black activism or attempted integration. Just as often, they were meted out to remind Negroes of their place.
Even the Klan seemed genteel compared to their freakish offshoots. The National States Rights Party, led by former Klansman J.B. Stoner, mated traditional racism with toxic antisemitism worthy of Julius Streicher. Stoner branded Jews “vipers from Hell” whose faith should be “a crime punishable by death.” Like most Southern demagogues, he waxed pathologically that integration led to interracial sex, projecting white sexual abuse of Black women onto nonwhites.4 The NSRP inspired derision, even among allies, for their vile language and self-parodying theatrics. One California organizer, labeled “Captain X” in FBI files, addressed rallies in a camp Nazi outfit complete with “polished jackboots with stiletto heels,” his face decorated with “rouge and mascara.”
Cartoonish though they were, Stoner’s goons posed a mortal threat. He implored his followers to “put a bomb down someplace;” at his direction, dozens of Black churches and synagogues across the South were bombed, burned or vandalized. Most notoriously, the NSRP perpetrated the October 1958 bombing of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple. Stoner also personally orchestrated an assassination attempt against Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, destroying his Bethel Street Baptist Church with dynamite. “When they bomb the house of the Lord,” one survivor lamented, “we are dealing with crazy people.”5
Asa Earl Carter further illustrates the intersection of white terrorists and “respectable” segregationists. A disciple of Jew-baiter Gerald L.K. Smith, Carter hosted a radio show (funded by Sidney Smyer) which expounded on a nefarious Black-Jew alliance.6 Carter organized the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, which dressed in Confederate outfits and signed oaths in their own blood. When Nat King Cole performed in Birmingham in April 1956, Carter’s goons threw rocks, charged the stage and assaulted the singer. A year later, his followers kidnapped and castrated a mentally challenged Black man, Judge Edward Aaron. A fitting representation of the Klan’s dark sexual obsessions, this grisly assault horrified even racist Alabama authorities.
Disowned by the Citizens Council, Carter also alienated the Klan by shooting two colleagues in a financial dispute. No matter: Carter befriended George Wallace, who enlisted him as a speechwriter for his 1962 gubernatorial campaign. Wallace, who’d previously been a racial moderate, defeated his mentor “Big Jim” Folsom by campaigning as a fiery white supremacist. And Carter’s inflammatory speeches were indispensable to the Governor’s rise as America’s arch-bigot. Wallace’s inaugural address, with its defense of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” was Asa Carter’s crowning achievement. 7
This was the coven of horribles which embraced Gary Rowe. He received an elaborate induction ceremony hosted by Robert Thomas, “Exalted Cyclops” of Eastview Klavern No. 13, where Rowe pledged loyalty to “the maintenance of White Supremacy and the principles of a pure Americanism.” Rowe, at first, despaired that his fellow Klansmen focused on bull sessions and gossip about women rather than action. While waiting for a call to arms, he amused himself by teaching his comrades judo (learned during service in the Marines) and adding to his gun collection with weapons bought using Klavern funds.
The FBI expressed frustration with the lack of actionable intelligence. Agent Kemp accused Rowe of “holding back on me” and urged him to “try and get in” with Klan cells plotting terrorism. Rowe retorted that “if you don’t believe what I’m telling you, go get yourself another son-of-a-bitch.” In September Rowe engaged in his first Klan action: burning twenty crosses at different locations outside Birmingham. Kemp covered up Rowe’s involvement in the cross-burnings, assuring Hoover that Rowe was an “excellent informant.”
Hoover was skeptical: he feared that an unstable, unreliable informant would embarrass the Bureau. He ordered a background check on Rowe which uncovered failed marriages, misdemeanors and several arrests, once for impersonating a police officer. Hoover sternly reminded Kemp to use a tight leash, reminding him that informants weren’t to engage in any illegal activities. An injunction Rowe, like many Bureau informants, would honor in the breach.
On April 6th, 1961 Rowe met with Fred Henson, a Klansman who enjoyed hypnotizing colleagues to weed out informants (a trick he never tired on Rowe). Henson told Rowe “there was a little missionary work to do”; Orman Forman, a local barber, had given a haircut to a Black child. A trifling offense, even in Alabama, but it served Rowe’s purposes twofold: it gave him a chance to ingratiate himself with his colleagues, and to see the action he so desperately craved.
That evening, Rowe accompanied Henson and other Klansman to Forman’s home. Rowe’s gang pistol-whipped Forman, tore his phone out of the wall and stuffed the barber’s head in a pillow, planning to execute him in front of his family. Fortunately for Forman, his wife Pauline interrupted by shooting a Klansmen in the leg with her husband’s Luger. After a brief shootout the would-be assassins escaped into the night, as the Formans emptied pistols at their fleeing cars.
Four days later, Rowe met with Agent Kemp, insisting that his party only meant to “scare” the Formans and, paradoxically, claimed that he’d saved Orman’s life. When Kemp admonished him to avoid violence, Rowe responded that “you can’t go out with carloads of 15 men and say, “hey, I’m going to stand back and look at you beat these damned people.” Kemp didn’t press the point; he again covered for Rowe, telling Hoover that “Tommy actually broke up the fight and…got the Klan out of there.”
Soon afterwards, the Klan learned that the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was organizing a Freedom Ride from Washington to New Orleans, investigating whether Southern states were compelling with Brown vs. Board. When Bull Connor, Birmingham’s rabid safety commissioner, learned that the caravan would pass through Birmingham, he sent an aide to meet with Rowe. Rowe received instructions to “beat ’em, bomb ’em, maim ’em and kill ’em”, with an assurance “there will be absolutely no arrests.” Rowe relayed his “fiery summons” to his Klavern; afterwards, he reported it to Agent Kemp.
Hoover, no friend to the Civil Rights Movement, had already refused Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s requests to protect the Freedom Riders. “We most certainly will not act as bodyguards for anyone,” Hoover sniffed. Nor did he take any action to prevent the ensuing riot, beyond relaying Rowe’s report to Birmingham police. The FBI concluded that, unless the rioters broke Federal laws, they couldn’t involve themselves in a local civil rights matter. An unrepentant Agent Kemp later asserted that “I was not the guardian of anyone’s freedom.”
What happened on May 17th, 1961 was predictable. Several hundred Klansmen and off-duty cops, “dressed casually in sport shirts as if…attending a sporting event,” gathered at Birmingham’s Greyhound terminal. Onhand were Imperial Wizard Bobby Shelton, who excitedly showed journalists the ambush they were preparing, and the odious J.B. Stoner, dressed in his standard Army khakis. They learned that buses had been stopped outside Anniston, their passengers bloodied and buses burned; but one bus made it through the blockade.
Rowe, overcome with excitement, shouted for his fellow bigots to “Come on, we’re going to be late!” Wielding “chains, sticks and clubs,” the Klansmen greeted the bus. Spotting white CORE activist James Peck, who’d escaped the scuffle at Anniston, they called him “a shame to the white race.” As Peck and Charles Person, a Black colleague, entered the terminal, the Klan pounced, beating them unconscious with their blunt instruments and, in Rowe’s case, his fists and feet. “A bloody ass mess,” Rowe remembered. CORE activists weren’t the mob’s only victims; one Klansman, who’d visited the restroom when the riot started, was nearly killed by his colleagues.
The Klansman dispersed as local police (who’d granted fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders unhindered) arrived, leaving bloodied victims in their wake. Rowe was among the last to leave, leading sorties against journalists swarming the scene. He spotted Tommy Langston, a photographer for the Birmingham Post-Herald, taking pictures and charged him, shouting “Let’s get that son-of-a-bitch!” Rowe and his goons wrecked Langston’s camera and smashed his skull with a baseball bat. The Klansmen then left the scene, “joking with one another as they ran out and jumped in their cars,” reporter Howard K. Smith recalled.
Amazingly, Langston not only survived but preserved his film; he’d photographed Rowe assaulting a CORE activist, George Webb, which was published in the Post-Herald. A furious Agent Kemp chewed out Rowe for joining the assault, ignoring the informant’s lie that he’d tried to restrain his comrades, and his whining that his “throat had been cut” by one of his victims (he’d suffered a minor injury to his neck during the melee). Still, Kemp again decided that protecting his informant outweighed moral considerations.
“Who’s that right there?” Kemp asked Langston, showing him the photograph.
“Me,” Rowe admitted.
“Shit, I’m going to ask you again,” Kemp demanded, “look at it very close. Who’s that?” He insisted to Rowe that the picture actually showed Arnie Cagle, another member of Rowe’s Klavern, and not him. Rowe reluctantly assented; and so Kemp reported to Washington, adding that his informant was “stable and trustworthy” and “very cautious in his…dealings with his fellow Klansmen.”
As Rowe’s career continued, so did racial tension in Birmingham. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth led increasingly bold protests against segregation, with support from Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other Civil Rights groups. On May 3rd, 1963 Shuttlesworth’s campaign climaxed when Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on child demonstrators. The images horrified Americans, and galvanized President John F. Kennedy (who was sickened by the pictures) to belatedly embrace Civil Rights.
On May 11th, while King and Shuttlesworth negotiated with Birmingham businessmen, Rowe attended a raucous Klan rally hosted by Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton. Soon afterwards, Klansmen attacked the home of King’s brother, A.D. King, then threw a bomb through the window of King’s hotel room, leaving a “five by five foot crater” in the hotel’s wall. Enraged Blacks responded with a full-blown riot, which police repressed with predictable savagery. A.D. King, whose wife narrowly escaped death, commented that “this whole town has gone berserk.”
By this time, Agent Kemp had left the FBI; Byron McFall, a younger Midwestern agent, replaced him as Rowe’s handler. The informant claimed that the Klan wasn’t behind the bombings at all. Incredibly, he blamed them on a gang of Black Muslims! McFall didn’t buy Rowe’s story, but didn’t press the informant about the truth. The FBI later discovered that every member of Rowe’s Klavern had an airtight alibi for that evening, except a troublemaker named Bill Holt – and Rowe himself.
Even as Birmingham grudgingly accepted King and Shuttlesworth’s demands, the Klan plotted more terror. Rowe soon fell in with Robert Chambliss, an ex-miner nicknamed “Dynamite Bob” for his expertise in explosives. “Goddamn white people are getting kicked around and the n****rs are taking over,” Chambliss told Rowe. He demanded that “you assholes” in Eastview “do something about it,” or else his splinter group (called the Cahaba Boys) would act.
On September 15th, 1963, a cache of dynamite destroyed 16th Street Baptist Church. Four Black girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair – were killed instantly; they’d been changing into choir robes for the morning’s service in the basement bathroom. This atrocity, which King labeled “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” cemented the savagery of the Klan; even Bull Connor and George Wallace couldn’t defend the murder of four young girls.
The FBI soon fingered Bob Chambliss and his Cahaba Boys as the perpetrators. They were helped by Rowe, who provided Agent McFall a blow-by-blow account of the bombing. “It did not strike the FBI as suspicious,” Diane McWhorter comments, “that for the second time that year Rowe reported a bombing practically from the scene.” Rowe twice failed a lie detector test when asked if he’d taken part in the bombing; nonetheless, when Chambliss and three colleagues were convicted in 1977, Rowe escaped indictment.
Rowe’s importance grew the following year, after the murder of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi galvanized the FBI to action. Lyndon Johnson, fighting to push his Civil Rights Act through Congress, ordered Hoover to “put people after the Klan and study it from one end of the country to the next.” Hoover initiated COINTELPRO – White Hate, ordering agents to sabotage the Klan using tactics long employed against Radical Left groups: poison pen letters to encourage infighting, creating splinter groups to weaken the Klan, even the use of agents provocateurs.
Hoover “has declared war on the Ku Klux Klan,” Agent McFall advised Rowe, “and…anything you’re man enough to do, do it.” Rowe happily obliged, spreading damaging rumors and accusing his comrades of being informants. Another instruction was even more salubrious to Rowe: he recalled McFall telling him to “sleep with as many wives as I could.” Rowe eagerly went to work, seducing a number of Klan wives to create even more hostility within the Klavern.
But Rowe couldn’t entirely avoid the Klan’s dirty work. The following March, as Martin Luther King led the voters’ march from Selma to Montgomery, his marchers were stalked by Klansmen. Among them were Rowe and three members of Bessemer Klavern No. 20, Eugene Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr. and William Eaton, with special orders from Robert Thomas (recently promoted to “Grand Titan”) to cause trouble. They were “a trigger-happy bunch,” historian Wyn Craig Wade notes, having been implicated in a bombing of a manufacturing plant and were eager to see action.
On March 25th the Klansmen, traveling in a red Chevy Impala, stopped at the Silver Moon Cafe outside Selma. Then Eugene Thomas pointed to a heavyset man eating at the far end of the diner, and commented “that’s the one out on bond for killing that ole preacher.” The man had taken part in the murder of James Reeb, a white Unitarian Minister headed to Selma, at this very diner a few days earlier. He boasted of his exploits and offered encouragement to Thomas and friends. “God bless you boys,” he said, slapping Thomas on the back. “We have done our job, now it’s up to you.”
Later that evening, the Klan car stopped at an intersection next to a green Oldsmobile with Michigan plates. The Oldsmobile contained Viola Liuzzo, a 39 year old Detroit housewife who’d driven to Selma to join the march, insisting that the Civil Rights Movement was “everybody’s fight.” Accompanying her was LeRoy Moton, a 19 year old dishwasher who’d defied his boss’s threat to “kick your behind through your nose” for protesting. Liuzzo was white (and not wearing shoes, which she hated); Moton was Black (and much younger than Liuzzo, with all that implied). Which seemed cause enough for Thomas, Rowe and colleagues to “do their jobs.”
The Klansmen sped after Liuzzo and Moton, the two cars racing at over 100 miles per hour. After several miles, the two cars drew together; Liuzzo, in the driver’s seat, shot her assailants a baleful look. Moton heard her singing “We Shall Overcome,” in one last gesture of defiance. “All right,” Thomas barked, “shoot the hell out of it!” The Klansmen drew their pistols and fired a barrage point-blank into the Oldsmobile, shattering the windshield and windows and sending the car skidding into a ditch.
“I reached over for the radio and…felt this glass and everything hit me in the face,” Moton recalled. He survived, uninjured aside from cuts from the shattered glass, though he was covered with Liuzzo’s blood. He passed out (“Maybe the good Lord didn’t want me to see anything,” he reasoned) until the assassins drove off, then ran down the highway flagging down a truck for help. It was too late; two bullets had shattered Liuzzo’s head, killing her instantly.
Rowe always insisted that, though he drew his gun, he never fired; Wilkins, he insisted, killed Liuzzo. His companions claimed that Rowe fired at least one of the fatal bullets; readers must decide which Klansman’s testimony seems more credible, or how much the ballistic details actually exonerate Rowe. Either way, Wilkins chortled to Rowe that “that bitch and that bastard were dead and in hell,” while Thomas crowed that Rowe was the Klavern’s “number one boy again.”
Liuzzo’s murder sparked outrage, with President Johnson vowing that “we will not be intimidated by the terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan”; he made good his words by passing the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, Hoover seemed more interested in impugning Liuzzo’s character, claiming that she and Moton engaged in a “necking party” and that her arm showed needle marks from drug use (slanders the Klan and its allies happily parroted). Yet Hoover realized that the arrest of Klansmen for killing a Civil Rights worker, based on Rowe’s testimony, would be a public relations coup.
Thomas, Wilkins and Eaton were indicted, with Rowe (dodging questions about his culpability) serving as the principal witness at their trial. Attorney General Richmond Flowers, that rare Southern politician with no tolerance for “hooded jerks,”8 advised the jury that “if you don’t render the true verdict of guilty, you might as well tear the meaning of true verdict out of the book.” Nonetheless, perjured testimony claiming the shooters were elsewhere led to their acquittal; the three men were later retried in a Federal court and convicted.
Rowe afterwards disappeared into Witness Protection, working intermittently as a US Marshal (under an assumed name) and a security guard. He remained out of the public eye until 1975, when he appeared before the Senate’s Church Committee sporting a Klan-like hood to hide his identity; he testified about his work for the Bureau and earned a splash of fame. Rowe published a self-aggrandizing memoir and was even played in a television movie by Don Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboy. His brief moment as a hero was overshadowed by lawsuits from Viola Liuzzo’s family and a Justice Department report that “Rowe was one of the handful most responsible” for the Freedom Riders riot of May 1961.
Gary Rowe, who died in 1998, admitted in a moment of candor that “I could not help wondering exactly what we had accomplished.” The Bureau’s history is littered with informant abuses, from the agents provocateurs spurring the New Left to violence to the decades-long mishandling of mob boss Whitey Bulger. Whatever crimes these operations may have prevented, more often they merely sanctioned violent lawbreaking under the FBI’s shield.
Sources and Further Reading
The main source for this article is Gary May, The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo (2005). Other sources include Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics (1995); James Kirkpatrick Davis, Spying on America: The FBI’s Domestic Counterintelligence Program (1992); Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001); and Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987).