Civil Rights History Comes To Ann Arbor

On March 25, 1965, civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, 39, of Detroit was driving back to Mongomery, Ala., after a voting rights march in Selma with a black man, Leroy Moten, 19, one of the Selma demonstrators. A car carrying four Ku Klux Klan members began a high-speed chase down Alabama Highway 80. When they caught up with Liuzzo, the men opened fire, killing Liuzzo. Her passenger was uninjured.

In 1983, five of Liuzzo’s children filed suit against the U.S. government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for negligence, cover-up and violation of the their mother’s civil rights. The $2 million lawsuit was brought before a federal court because one of the four men arrested in the murder was an FBI informant. The non-jury trial was heard by U.S. District Judge Charles W. Joiner in Ann Arbor.

The four Klansmen were arrested hours after the incident and charged with conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victim, but one of them, Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. was later dropped from a state grand jury’s murder indictment because he was an undercover FBI informant. An 1975 investigation by the Senate Select Committee to Study Government relations began an investigation. Rowe testified that he has participated in acts of violence that were known and approved by the FBI. Rowe was indicted in the Liuzzo murder in 1978 by an Alabama grand jury but had not been tried because of legal complications.

The trial in Ann Arbor opened on March 21. The five Liuzzo chidren –Anthony, Thomas, Penny, Mary and Sally – allege that Rowe killed their mother or failed to prevent the slaying as an agent of a law enforcement agency. The other three men in the pursuit car were tried for murder in Alabama but acquitted.

The Ann Arbor News, primarily reporter Chong W. Pyen, gave extensive coverage to the trial and its aftermath. But the trial also drew national attention as the Liuzzo murder had become a key incident in the history of the civil rights movement.

During the trial two former Ku Klux Klan members, who were in the car, testified that it was Rowe who fired the fatal shots that killed Liuzzo. U.S. Government counsel Ann C. Robertson contended that the two men, Eugene Thomas and Collie LeRoy Wilkins, were not telling the truth. She argued there was no proof that Rowe fired the fatal shot and that he was an “independent contractor” not an FBI employee.

Ramsey Clark, a deputy attorney general in 1965, testified that he would have ordered the FBI to fire Rowe if he had known of his violent tendencies. The FBI never informed Clark and Rowe remained on the government payroll as the FBI’s top Klan informant. In his testimony, Clark said, the relationship between the FBI and the attorney general’s office was “never good during the years I was in the Department of Justice.”

Rowe testified by videotape that he had warned the FBI about seeing a large KKK arsenal being taken into a motel, containing Browning automatic rifles, ammunition, hand grenades and land mines. Rowe also testified that Collie LeRoy Wilkins had killed Liuzzo.

Joseph A. Sullivan, an FBI inspector, testified that the killing of Liuzzo was a “failure” on the part of the FBI but that there was nothing that the agency could have done differently. The FBI was also called on to defend as “standard procedure” an exhaustive FBI background check on Liuzzo, which included unsubstantiated claims that Liuzzo used “dope” and was promiscuous.

Final arguments in the case were made in late April of 1983. In late May, Judge Joiner ruled against the Liuzzo family and supported the FBI’s use of paid informants. Joiner's decision was in stark contrast to the simultaneous ruling by Judge Richard Enslen in Grand Rapids that the FBI was negligent in the shooting and paralysis of Freedom Rider Walter Bergman.

In his decision, Judge Joiner ruled that the Liuzzo’s would be held accountable for court costs of almost $80,000. The News wrote a strong editorial condemning the judge’s punitive charges against the Liuzzo’s. In January 1984, the costs were slashed to $3,645.

In 1985, The News caught up with the Liuzzo family again and telling how they were coping in the aftermath of the trial. Tony Liuzzo said he had meeting with a repentant Eugene Thomas, who apologized to Liuzzo but admitted that nothing he said could make up for what was done.

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