The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, By Gary May, Yale University, 431 pp., illustrated, $35
Even as other notorious civil rights cases are being reopened, the murder of Viola Liuzzo in Selma, Ala., in March 1965 is a closed case after the conviction of three members of the Ku Klux Klan many years later. But the FBI's use of informants, vital to the prosecution of that case, remains a matter of concern, and will resonate with readers in the Boston area.
''The Informant" tells of the Klan's campaign against civil rights workers and blacks; the Liuzzo murder; and Gary Thomas Rowe's role as FBI-recruited informant, and his possible involvement in the Klan's campaign.
Gary May, a history professor at the University of Delaware, is a riveting storyteller, conveying a deep understanding of the times and their passions.
In 1960, the Birmingham FBI received an anonymous call from a local Klansman. The Klan wanted to recruit Rowe, ''a self-proclaimed 'hell-raiser,' " but was concerned that Rowe, a ''cop buff," might be -- or become -- an informant.
Learning that the FBI had no knowledge of Rowe, the KKK recruited him -- but so did the FBI, for, as May writes, ''the qualities that made Rowe an ideal Klansman also made him an ideal Klan informant for the FBI."
Rowe worked his way up in the Klan hierarchy, and in the FBI's regard. In May 1961, he tipped off the FBI on plans to attack Freedom Riders, but it failed to act on his tip. Then, when Riders did arrive in Birmingham, not only did Rowe help organize the attacks against them, he was also photographed beating one of them.
''But," May writes, ''protecting the informant was the rule, even if it meant lying to one's superiors."
Two years later, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in which four black girls were killed, Rowe came up with suspects but not the Klan's most experienced bomber. May wonders whether Rowe was ''intentionally pointing the FBI in the wrong direction because he was involved in the bombing?"
In 1965, Rowe informed the FBI of plans to disrupt the Selma-Montgomery march. Liuzzo had come to Selma from Detroit, telling her family, ''I need to be there."
After the march, Liuzzo shuttled marchers to the airport. As she returned to Selma, her car was attacked. She was shot and killed; the young black civil rights worker riding with her was injured.
Rowe called his FBI handler and said he had been in the car from which Liuzzo was shot; he gave the names of his companions. Rowe was the key witness at the trials, but his role was questioned in the late 1970s, when the case was reopened. Whether or not Rowe could have prevented the murder, he was ultimately exonerated. He died in 1998.
May levels a serious charge at the FBI and its use of informants. ''If Rowe's presence in the car contributed to the murder," he writes, ''then the system is partly responsible for the tragedy." And Rowe himself may have ''[flunked] the ultimate test" -- of his ''physical strength and courage" -- ''when he failed to prevent Liuzzo's murder."