The strange story of Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.

A great American died recently:  Sheldon Kennedy.  He infiltrated the third Ku Klux Klan in the WWII and post-WWII years, then wrote about them.  The Klan never forgave him, which made him my friend in spirit on some level.  That got me back to some re-reading in a subject that has long interested me:  the KKK and its kind.

In the mid-1970s (age 12 or so), I happened to pick up a book called My Undercover Years in the Ku Klux Klan, by Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.  In brief:  “Tommy” Rowe was a working-class Georgian who liked to fight, and who infiltrated Bobby Shelton’s Alabama branch of the KKK (at FBI instigation) during the civil rights movement.  He informed (how truthfully, we are uncertain) on the Klan until the 1965 day he was in a vehicle from which Michigan civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo was shot to oblivion near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, not far from Birmingham and Selma, AL. The jig was up, of course.  Rowe testified against the assassins (never quite shedding suspicion that he was among them), his cover was well beyond retrieval, and he went into Witness Protection.  He passed away in 1998Here is a brief catchup on his story from a biographer, a more reputable source than the NYT.

In a way, Rowe’s ghosted autobio was one of my first introductions to historiography:  how much of what he said could I believe? I wanted to believe as much of it as possible.  As the descendant of a Kansas Ku Klux Klansman (unless my grandfather lied to me in one of his last fully lucid moments, which I doubt), I have had a longtime antipathy toward their kind–and toward all such organizations.  With a little luck, they feel the same way about me.  Any time you start researching any intelligence matter–and anything to do with the FBI qualifies as such–your historiography and skepticism must kick into passing gear.  You must realize that any of your sources have axes to grind and would willingly lie like rugs, the G-Men as much as the racists.  It’s all up to what you believe credible.  The greatest handicap is to be so emotionally involved that there are sources from which you would believe nothing, and on this topic I leave some paint on that guardrail.

So, thinking of Sheldon Kennedy, I revisited The Informant.  This investigative bio of Rowe came out in 2005.  As one may imagine, so long as Rowe lived, information about him would be elusive; he had betrayed a terrorist organization whose propensity for violence and reprisal he knew as well as any man alive.  Even after his death, it wasn’t easy for Prof. May to find the full story of Tommy Rowe.  At the very least, I can re-read what he did find–and even that must be considered historiographically.  Two of Liuzzo’s living relatives call May a liar.  Whom do we believe? Now you see why history can get so fuzzy.  The sister says she didn’t talk to May.  May disagrees.  Even though the principals are still living, we still must decide who’s lying.

All right.  What do I now make of Tommy Rowe, FBI informant, known racist, thug and adrenaline junkie? There is zero doubt that he participated in violence against the civil rights movement (we’ve got pictures).  Was that justified in the name of maintaining cover? Not an easy ethical question.  Did he fire at Viola Liuzzo? He may have, in order to avoid being immediately next, which does not necessarily mean he fired accurately.  FBI agents with motive to lie said his pistol had not been fired, but that means nothing except that someone (with a motive to lie) told us that a given weapon hadn’t been used.  (His was not the only weapon in existence, of course.  Lots of Americans have more than one pistol.  Some have dozens.  Show them this .22, not that one.)  We cannot know if Rowe fired, nor how effectively. What is well documented:  whether or not Rowe fired effectively at Viola Liuzzo and her passenger Leroy Moton (a black civil rights volunteer), unless he shot to death the three other Klansman in the car as they overtook the Liuzzo vehicle, fatal violence was imminent. Someone was about to die.  Rowe could not have doubted that.

One may argue that this is exactly what Lowe should have done:  three quick, calm shots, executions of backseat fellow, shotgun rider, driver.  Two seconds, three violent bigots erased.  All very well to say, except that neither I nor most of you have ever lived a double life for several years while infiltrating a hate organization.  At this remove, it isn’t so easy to lay fair judgment about Tommy Rowe; he was there, deciding on the spot, and I was not.  Blowing people away in a speeding vehicle (in which you too are riding), before they actually commit a crime, in cold blood, well…that’s asking a lot.  Rowe had no more desire to go to jail for life than anyone else, and up to the moment guns blazed, he was still in cover with a job to do.  When does the infiltrator decide that the game is over, and to change his life forever? Judging this is like judging combat veterans.  We weren’t there; they were.

To call Rowe a civil rights hero is unsupportable, but it is equally indefensible to call him a racist redneck out for only a few thrills, some government dollars and shielding for beating people up (preferably integrationists).  He did tremendous damage to the Ku Klux Klan; unless he murdered a baby doing it, that goal was valuable to any enemy of the KKK.  I don’t have to think him an admirable man to be glad he was where he was.  I think he was a moderate racist, the garden variety who knew the cant and could pass, rather than a virulent bigot who only showed up so that he could beat up blacks with Federal impunity. (You think there is no such thing as a moderate racist? Don’t let the desire to demonize racism make you forget to be careful what you wish for.  I know people who use racist language but aren’t ever going to blow up a church.  I can disapprove of their attitudes while being glad they aren’t going to commit murder.)  Meta-fact:  fear of informers was a leading paralytic to KKK violence in the civil rights era, and after Rowe, it wasn’t paranoia on the Klan’s part; the Feds truly were out to get them.  (Go Feds!)  In the end, Tommy Rowe probably prevented far more racist violence than he participated in, and did vast harm to the Ku Klux Klan.

Sometimes we have to take what we can get–unless we ourselves are willing to step up.  Who’s volunteering for such a thing? Had I not married, I might have done so–but that’s not a story I’ll ever tell in a blog.  Rowe was what the FBI could get.  I would have a very hard time constructing an argument that decency would have been better served had he told the FBI and KKK both to go to hell, or had he died before then in a car accident and we never known him.

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