Book on Selma and Viola Liuzzo is relevant in today?s political climate

by Avern Cohn
U.S. District Court

Notwithstanding the multitude of books and articles about the death of Viola Liuzzo at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions, by James P. Turner, a retired career lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, is a valuable contribution to the literature. Its echoes of the past still resonate today.

The Encyclopedia of Detroit, published by the Detroit Historical Society, describes Liuzzo as, “A martyr of the Civil Rights Movement, and the only white woman killed during that struggle, her death was not in vain; it is believed to have helped spark the passing of the Voting Rights Act just five months later.”

While the book, published by the University of Michigan Press, deals primarily with the trial efforts, three in number, to bring to justice Liuzzo’s assassins, it also gives coverage to the role of an FBI informant embedded in the Klan in the conviction efforts. As is well known, Gary T. Rowe Jr. was a witness to the killing. Rowe testified in the two trials initiated by the State of Alabama to convict the Klansmen of murder, convictions that failed because an Alabama jury of the 1960s would not convict a white person of murdering a white woman who was in the company of an African American.  Liuzzo at her death was a volunteer driver in the Selma Voting Rights March. The first jury hung; the second jury acquitted the Klansmen; the third trial, in which Rowe also testified, was brought by the Civil Division of the United States Department of Justice, charging the Klansmen with violating Liuzzo’s civil rights.

The University of Michigan Press, as part of its marketing of the book, has created a detailed website of the book. Among the pages on the site is a reference to the July 1979 Task Force Report on Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., an Investigative Account by the Office of Professional Responsibility of the Attorney General and the United States Department of Justice. The report was in response to the concerns of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s “intense. . .interest. . .in receiving a full report on an investigation into allegations that Mr. Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. committed a violent crime while a government informant.”

The introductory page of the Report states:

On July 8, 9, and 11, 1978, The New York Times had published reports that Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. had taken part in violent crimes with Klansmen while serving the FBI as an informant within the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham from 1960 to 1965.  In particular, The Times reported that in 1963, Rowe shot an unidentified black man, and was told by his handling FBI agent to keep quiet about it.  ABC television had also shown, in July 1978, a two-part documentary suggesting that Rowe fired the bullet which killed Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker who was shot on U.S. Highway 80 on March 25, 1965, following the Selma to Montgomery freedom march, and that he gave “indications of deception” when he told a polygrapher in 1978 that he had not fired into Viola Liuzzo’s car.  ABC also reported that Collie Leroy Wilkins gave a “truthful response” when he told a polygrapher that Rowe had fired toward the Liuzzo car in 1965.

The concluding paragraph of the more than 250-page Report, which found no evidence in any of the accusations, states:

No conclusions regarding Rowe’s participation in the death of Mrs. Liuzzo are included because of his pending trial in Alabama. The Task Force does not think any conclusions or recommendations are warranted regarding the handling of informants. The Rowe matter is now 14 years behind the FBI and guidelines have now been promulgated. We view this matter as sui generis.

The reference to “his pending trial in Alabama” refers to the efforts of an Alabama state prosecutor to bring Rowe to trial for the killing of Liuzzo based on the testimony of two Klansmen. It failed. A federal district judge, affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that Rowe had immunity from prosecution based on his agreement with the federal government.

Turner’s account of the trials which took place some 50 years ago still has relevance today, particularly in light of the efforts to diminish voting rights, and particularly to the attacks on the FBI in its investigation of group criminal activity.  George Santayana tells us that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The efforts to discredit the FBI’s crime detection efforts with the aid of an informant in attacking the messenger and ignoring the message is still with us.  See Joyce Vance and Barbara McQuade, “Baseless Attacks on Robert Mueller Must End to Protect Our Democracy,” The Hill (July 8, 2018).