The Informant


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The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo

Gary May

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In 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.

Gary May is professor of history and director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program, University of Delaware. His previous books include China Scapegoat: The Diplomatic Ordeal of John Carter Vincent and Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington.

"The Informant is an important book. As a wonderful storyteller and historian, Gary May uses a dramatic 1965 Civil Rights murder to tell the fascinating account of an FBI informant system that had careened out of control. Breaking new ground with his prodigious research, May takes readers back to the 1960s, inside the violent world of the Ku Klux Klan and the strife that was splitting America. May vividly demonstrates the danger of fighting today’s terrorists by relying on violent informants operating in a criminal netherworld with no fear of arrest. The Informant is a riveting and cautionary tale for modern times."—Gerald Posner, author of Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11


"The Informant is a gripping and suspenseful account of an enormously important event in American history. Based on unprecedented access to internal FBI documents, it offers fresh revelations about the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI, and the Civil Rights movement. This is a great book and, incidentally, a real page-turner."—Richard Gid Powers, author of Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI

"Gary May’s page-turner is a demonstration that truth can be stranger than fiction. His book is a cautionary tale about secret government in general and the misuse of secret agents in particular. Part biography, part history, May’s book is a window on personalities and events essential to our understanding of the civil rights era of the 1960s."— Robert Dallek

"Suspenseful and vigorously reported. . . . With a prosecutorial zeal and palpable outrage, May delves through FBI files, trial transcripts and interviews to unravel an essentially co-dependent relationship between Rowe and his FBI enablers. From the beginning, Rowe involved himself in the very brutal acts that he was drafted to forestall, creating a moral quagmire that engulfed Hoover's FBI and perverted its mission. The paradoxes that May delineates are [shocking]. . . . The caution May sounds in The Informant is worth heeding, now more than ever after the intelligence failures of 9/11 and Iraq."— Michael Ollove, The Baltimore Sun, (Editor's Choice)

"This book has been thoroughly researched and masterfully written. . . . The book has been a wonderful and enlightening history lesson for me and I would highly recommend it to readers of high school age and beyond."—Nancy C. Dallas, Decatur, AL Daily

"The Informant is a model of painstaking historical research coupled with an exemplary writing style, vivid, dramatic, and suspenseful. Serious historical writing May proves need not be dull."—Murray Polner, History News Network

"May weds strong storytelling and research in an important work that asks a timeless question: How far should law enforcement let an informant go in the name of public safety? . . . The Verdict: Four stars" —Dinae Clehane, Justice Magazine



"In the shadow of 9/11, May probes the tensions inherent in employing terrorists to commit terror so that they can inform on other terrorists. Amid illuminating portraits of Rowe and Liuzzo, May reveals the politics and pratfalls of maintaining an informant system within the letter and spirit of U.S. law."—Library Journal

"The Informant is a must for anyone interested in America's civil rights era."—Alvin Benn, Montgomery Advertiser

“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.”—Publishers Weekly



"This book has been thoroughly researched and masterfully written. It chronicles the shameful attitudes and conditions of racial, sexual and religious inequality in Alabama and the nation in general that existed in mid-20th century American and persist in some quarters to the present day. The book has been a wonderful and enlightening history lesson for me and I would recommend it to readers of high school age and beyond."—Nancy C. Dallas, The Decatur Daily


“Gary May’s fine book . . . tells, in exemplary fashion, a cautionary tale of real importance.”—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

"May . . . depicts the inner workings of the Klan in fascinating detail, especially the rampant paranoia and the pageant like proceedings remaining from its founding 100 years earlier, and he presents the intricate legal issues surrounding the trials straightforwardly, making particularly knotty issues seem clear and understandable. . . . It 'a grim tale, full of compromised characters, disgusting actions, and tragic events. To his credit, May presents it soberly and unflinchingly."—Stephen Deusner, Wilmington News Journal


"It is unlikely that anyone will ever know the full truth of what happened that night in 1965 [regarding the murder of Viola Liuzzo], but May has written the most detailed and complete account of this tragic event."—Paul T. Murray, Multicultural Review

"Gary May has written a work of great value to specialists, but he also provides a gripping drama for those who value well-written historical narrative."—John Drabble, The Alabama Review

Picked as a Top 10 book for 2005 by Now Magazine
ISBN: 9780300184136
Publication Date: November 30, 2011
448 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4