cover image THE INFORMANT: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo

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

Gary May, . . Yale Univ., $35 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-300-10635-0

May, whose previous explorations of American history in works such as Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington were critically acclaimed for their vivid writing and painstaking research, has turned his formidable talents to restoring a controversial episode in the civil rights struggle. While slain activist Viola Liuzzo is far from a household name today, her murder in 1965 at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan immediately after the Selma, Ala., voting rights march was a national sensation. President Johnson kept close tabs on the investigation. When suspects were taken into custody almost immediately, it seemed that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was doing its job brilliantly; federal informant Gary Thomas Rowe, who fingered the suspects, had infiltrated the Alabama Klan five years earlier. But as May lucidly describes, Rowe's own role in the murder was suspicious, and his experiences with the KKK, which often crossed the line dividing observer from participant, linked him with other notorious race crimes of the era, including the Birmingham church bombing. 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. (June)