Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. (1933-1998) is one of the most controversial figures of the civil rights movement in Alabama. Between 1960 and 1965, Rowe, worked as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham and providing the FBI with information about the group’s members and activities. Rowe, however, ignored FBI instructions to avoid violent situations and participated in several high-profile attacks upon civil rights activists and was an accessory to the murder of Viola Liuzzo.
Rowe was born on August 13, 1933, to Gary Thomas Rowe and Alma Ann Sellars in Savannah, Georgia. He dropped out of school after completing the eighth grade and later joined the Georgia National Guard and United States Marine Corps Reserves. After his discharge from the military in March 1957, Rowe moved to Birmingham, where he unsuccessfully pursued a career in law enforcement. Rowe would be married four times and father three children and adopt two more during his multiple marriages.
Local Klan leaders began encouraging Rowe to join the group while he worked as a bouncer at the Birmingham Veterans of Foreign Wars Club, one of the city’s many Klan hangouts. Meanwhile, FBI agents had come to Alabama to gather information about the Ku Klux Klan and black activists whom the agency suspected of having Communist ties. Initially Rowe refused to join the Klan, but when he was caught impersonating an FBI agent, the FBI recruited Rowe to join the group to provide them with insider information about Klan operations. The FBI’s task was made easier by the fact that Rowe had wanted to be a police officer, but was ineligible because he lacked a high school diploma. In May 1960, Rowe joined the Eastview Klavern and began receiving monthly payments ranging from $80.00 to $250.00 plus expenses from the FBI “for services rendered.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover personally approved these payments.
Although some Klansmen were suspicious of Rowe, others, particularly Grand Dragon (supreme leader) Bobby Shelton, found Rowe to be trustworthy and willing to use violence to achieve the Klan’s goals. Within months of his initiation, Klansmen elected Rowe to a leadership position with the Birmingham Klan. Rowe’s quick rise resulted from support from younger members who criticized older leaders for their reluctance to use violence against civil rights activists.
Freedom Riders Arrive in Birmingham On May 14, 1961, Rowe helped organize the Klan response to the Freedom Riders and led one group of Klansmen in an attack upon a group of Freedom Riders at the Birmingham bus station. Although Rowe had warned the FBI three weeks earlier that the Klan planned to attack the Freedom Riders, the FBI did not intervene because it claimed it lacked jurisdiction for various reasons, although the Freedom Riders were protected by federal interstate commerce laws.
Some of Rowe’s FBI handlers believe he may have been involved in the May 11, 1963, bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s room at the Gaston Motel in Birmingham and of King’s brother’s home and parsonage. Rowe claimed, however, that he had an informant in the African American community who said it was Black Muslims who planted the bombs. Rowe was involved in other acts of violence against African Americans and was arrested and may have been involved in another murder in 1963.
Rowe and five other Klansmen were arrested outside of Tuscaloosa in early June 1963 by the Alabama state police, who had been tipped off by the FBI, according to some accounts. The Klansmen were found with a trunkload of weapons, including dynamite, hand grenades, and a machine gun, aiming to disrupt the admission of James Hood and Vivian Malone at the University of Alabama. The men were released and had their weapons returned.
In September 1963, Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. Rowe may have participated in the bombing and possibly even knew about the bombers’ plans, but he failed to report the plot to the FBI and a 1979 investigation found no evidence of his participation.
Viola Gregg Liuzzo On March 25, 1965, Rowe was among a group of four Klansmen who murdered civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in Lowndes County, following the Selma to Montgomery March. Alerted soon after by Rowe, the FBI arrested him and the others less than 24 hours after the murder. Nine days later the charges against Rowe were dropped and the nation learned that he had been a longtime FBI informant. Rowe’s violence and the FBI’s failure to monitor him deeply embarrassed FBI director Hoover, who subsequently sought to smear Liuzzo’s reputation to distract attention away from Rowe’s involvement in her murder. Rowe later testified against the three murder suspects, who were found not guilty by an all-white Lowndes County jury but later found guilty of violating Liuzzo’s civil rights in a federal court. Rowe always made the claim that he did not fire his weapon, which was confirmed by FBI investigators.
In 1965, Rowe entered the FBI’s witness protection program under the name Thomas Neil Moore. He briefly served as an agent in the U.S. Marshals Service but was dismissed for his continued violent behavior. After Rowe became alienated from the FBI, he began to openly criticize the agency’s actions during the civil rights movement. In 1975, Rowe appeared before a congressional hearing wearing a disguise to hide his identity. He claimed that the FBI could have prevented numerous assaults upon civil rights activists during the 1960s but had failed to act. Rowe repeated many of these accusations in his 1976 autobiography, My Undercover Years with the Ku Klux Klan.
Although FBI regulations prevented informants from committing acts of violence, Rowe and the FBI ignored those rules to protect Rowe’s identity and to gain access to information shared only among Klan leaders. Most notably, Rowe related to the FBI a plan by Klansmen to kill Fred Shuttlesworth at a recently integrated Birmingham restaurant in July 1962. The FBI relayed that information to Shuttlesworth, who had planned to test the new policy at the restaurant, but on another night. Overall though, the FBI employed Rowe to learn more about the Klan’s operations and members. His covert work helped the FBI uncover the names of numerous active Klansmen and provided information about men who had committed acts of violence against African Americans and civil rights workers, but the FBI often ignored these reports and subsequently did little to curtail Klan violence or to protect civil rights activists. Rowe’s intentions have been questioned by many historians and journalists, who have accused him of using his FBI connections to avoid prosecution as he carried out his own violent racist agenda. In later years, Rowe stated that he had opposed racial integration but disputed reports that racism motivated his actions as an informant. Rowe claimed that he disliked the Klan and served the FBI to protect America. Often times, though, his statements and testimony were found to be inconsistent.
In 1978, Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley charged Rowe with Viola Liuzzo’s murder. The indictment was thrown out because Rowe had been granted immunity from prosecution before he entered the federal witness relocation program in 1965. A 1979 task force on the agency’s use of informants came to few conclusions, most notably about the Liuzzo murder. Rowe remained in the news throughout the early 1980s as the FBI defended itself during a series of lawsuits filed by Liuzzo’s family stemming from the agency’s actions during the civil rights movement. For the rest of his life, reporters and historians often sought out Rowe for interviews about his work as a FBI informant. Rowe died of a heart attack on May 25, 1998, in Savannah, Georgia. His obituary was not published until that October.
Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
May, Gary. The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Rowe, Gary Thomas Jr. My Undercover Years with the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.
Stanton, Mary. From Selma To Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Thornton, J. Mills, III. Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.