Undercover with the KKK (1979)

 

 

 

Director:     Barry Shear.

Starring:     Don Meredith (Gary Thomas 'Tom' Rowe Jr.),  Ed Lauter (Raleigh Porter),  Clifton James (Jimmy Eakin),  Albert Salmi (Lester Mitchell),  Michele Carey (Mary Beth Barker),  Lance LeGault (Weasel),  Margaret Blye (Billie Ruth Rowe),  Edward Andrews (Pat Murray),  Slim Pickens (Yancey Hicks),  James Wainwright (T.J. Barker),  Don 'Red' Barry (Ben Wright),  Ron Trice (Roscoe Cobb),  Earl Montgomery (Dr. Sheffield),  John Lawrence (Captain Collins),   Cliff Emmich (Orville).

Made for TV movie.

the murder of Viola Luizzo, a civil rights volunteer from Detroit in Alabama who had five children back home in Michigan (March 1965)

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

"A County Courthouse, grass roots of the American legal system. On September 20, 1978, a grand jury sitting in just such a court house in Lowndes County, Alabama, indicted Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. for murder. This indictment shocked both the nation and the federal government itself, for at the time of the alleged murder, Mr. Rowe was a paid informant for the F.B.I., an undercover agent and an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. Informers are generally acknowledged to be the most effective tool in law enforcement today. In some cases on record some informants may have broken the law or found themselves caught up in the very illegal acts theyíve been ordered to investigate. A film youíre about to see is a fictionalized version of certain incidents that occurred during the six years that Gary Thomas Rowe was employed as an FBI informant. While the characters are fictionalized, most of the events actually took place. Mr. Rowe was indicted for the murder of Viola Luizzo after this film was completed and the nature of his involvement is still unclear."

Birmingham, Alabama 1963. The leader of one of many Ku Klux Klan groups speaks to a crowd of Klansmen. He says that Klan was born out of the need for white Southerners to protect themselves from the carpet baggers and the Jew, and the nigger, and the dago and the spic. And anybody who ainít a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American. The carpetbagger teamed up with the Negro to take everything that the white man had, including white women.

Then the leader welcomes everyone to the first initiation ceremony of 1963. Six candidates are brought out to take the oath of loyalty. One of these men is Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.

After the ceremony Tom is invited to go out drinking with some of the big wigs of the Klan.

They go to a Klan friendly  place with lots of rebel flags everywhere. The leader is there, a man named T. J. Barker and his wife Mary Beth Barker. The other Klansmen are Jimmy Eakin and his wife, along with Lester Mitchell. and his wife. Barker tells Tom that their activities are non-violent, that is, unless they are called on to defend their principles.

Tom excuses himself to use the facilities, but he really wants to make a phone call to his FBI connection, agent Raleigh Porter. His message is that everythingís fine. Heís now inside the Klan.

Back at home Tom answers his wifeís questions about joining the Klan. She says she doesnít know how Tom ever let that Raleigh Porter talk him into being an informant for the FBI. Tom replies that itís the FBI and heís just proud that Porter asked him. He even says heíd like to be an FBI agent. His wife says he canít be an FBI man because he didnít even graduate high school. Tom says you have to be a college boy now to be in the FBI. And he couldnít even pass the policemanís exam.

Tom works at a tire center. One of his co-workers is taking more tires than he has paid for to make some extra money on the side. Tom tells the guy that heís $10.00 short and that really angers the thief. Tom adds that last week the man was $15.00 dollars short.  So the fellow goes after Tom. Tom is getting the better of the guy, so the thief grabs a tire iron to brain old Tom.

The black man at work intervenes and takes the tire iron away. Now Tom and Jim grab the thief and shove him and Tom tells the man to never come back again. Tom thanks Jim who says that Tom would do the same for him.

Tom goes into a bar. The bartender says heís sure glad to see Tom again. Itís been awhile. They have a drink together. While he talks to the bartender, an old friend, lawman Yancey, calls for him to come over and see him. Tom starts whistling "Dixie" and walks over to his old friend.

They have a friendly arm wrestling contest and Yancey wins. Then they start drinking with one of Yanceyís friends. A KKK redneck, named Weasel, comes into the bar and heís upset with the bartender for allowing a "nigger loving" cop to be in his establishment. The redneck confronts Yancey who knocks him to the ground.

At home Tomís wife complains about him fooling around with Mary Beth, the wife of T. J. Barker, while she is typing up his FBI report. Tom complains that Mr. Porter doesnít give him his $100 dollars per week regularly on time.  He guesses that Porter may be keeping some of the money for himself. 

Tom drives up to a movie theater to attend another KKK meeting. Heís a little late and sees Weasel telling the stragglers to hurry and get into the meeting. Tom remains in his car to avoid Weasel. Weasel, however, sees that over at Mervís dinner several black couples are trying to integrate the place.

Weasel sounds the alarm and soon J. T. Barker is leading the charge of a lot of KKK men running over to Mervís place. They start knocking around the blacks, both male and female. They even slug the black women. One black man gets tossed through a glass window. Othesr are beaten with clubs. And the entire dining place is wrecked in the riot.

Tom holds one of the black men while two others KKK men slug the poor fellow. As the police ride up, they are in the process of throwing the black man over a high fence. The man is stranded there with his mid-section stuck on the fence.

A policeman gets out of the car to see whatís going on. Tom says they was just going to church because itís brotherhood night. The other men say the same. The cop says to Tom: "Well, if itís brotherhood night, you better throw that coon over the fence or bring him back on this side." So the black man is pushed over and behind the fence.

Tom is at home throwing around the football with his son. Lester drives up and tells Tom to get into the car. A man is sitting in the back behind Tom and points a pistol right at Tom saying he has something for Tom. Tom is worried and asks Lester whatís going on? Lester says this is Derwood Walker, deputy sheriff at the courthouse, who hands out gun permits. Derwood hands the pistol and the gun permit to Tom and he and Lester have a good laugh at their sadistic joke. Lester says the guys like the way Tom handles things and they want to use him on the important missions they go on. Lester tells Tom to keep the pistol at the ready and Tom gets out of the car. Lester pulls away from the house.

Again Tom disappoints his wife who is all ready to go out tonight by saying he has to go see FBI man Porter. He shows his wife the pistol. She asks if he is going to be out until 3 a.m. again? He might have to be. She now brings up that she thinks he goes to see that Mary Beth gal on these late night romps.

Tom meets Porter in a large cemetery. They both think that Tom is now going to be at the center of the KKK crimes committed in the area. Tom is worried. He tells Porter that these "special" assignments might involve fire starting, beating heads or nigger bating.

Porter tells him that the FBI canít protect him if he commits crimes. All they want is for him to move up in the organization and itís totally up to Tom as to what he does in order to move up. Tom complains that gives him no guidance at all. Porter says Tom may have to become buddies with the KKK leader or sleep with the wives of the KKK men, which is all just to the better.

TJ, Lester and Jimmy create another riot at an eating establishment because blacks are being served. They toss paint all around and rough up the black customers.

An older woman teaches young black and white girls how to become ballet dancers. Lester calls her up and threatens her with personal harm. She calls him a filthy, filthy pig and hangs up on him.

Don is there when the special KKK unit breaks the windows and slashes the tires of a black ministerís car and then beat up the fellow.

At a KKK meeting JT prays to God saying that the men of the KKK fight on the side of God. After the meeting is over, Weasel and a very large man grab Tom. It appears that Weasel has said that Tom works for the government. Tom says he certainly does not, but JT says that Tom has been seen talking to government people. Moreover, they think Tom is a federal agent. Tom finally realizes that Weasel has fingered him because Tom is friends with Yancey Hicks. Tom explains the situation, staying very cool, and then breaks out of the grip of the two men and slugs Weasel to the floor. He then grabs JT from behind and gets him in a head lock and threatens to break the manís neck.

Tom now gives a good defense of his action and JT says he believes the man. So Tom lets JT go. Weasel tells JT that he is making a mistake about this Tom guy. This just makes JT furious at Weasel. He tells Weasel: "I donít make mistakes! You hear?"

JT apologizes to Tom but explains that the FBI is trying to infiltrate their organization. If he finds an informer, he will kill the man.

Yancey and Tom go fishing. Yancey is upset with his friend because Tom told him he had joined the KKK. He tells Tom that he is going to land up dead or in the penitentiary. Tom says Yancey canít tell him who he can and cannot see. He adds that he has his own reasons for joining.

Tom takes off leaving Yancey by the bridge over the river. He fishes some more. Nearby is Weasel with a canister of gasoline.

Tom has sex with Mary Beth again. He tries to get information out of her without much success.

Yancey finishes fishing and gets in his car. Up comes Weasel with a bucket of gasoline and tosses the liquid onto Yancey and the car interior. He then lights the gasoline and the car and Yancey go up in flames.

When Tom gets back home his wife asks him if heís been out with Yancey for all this time? Tom, of course, says yes he has. Now the wife has caught her husband in a lie. She tells him that Yancey Hicks is dead, burned up at 2 pm. The wife now tells Tom that she wants him out of this house. She doesnít even want him to see his kids. She says she doesnít want to hate Tom, so she asks him to please leave. Tom leaves.

At work Tom borrows $50 dollars from Jim. Jim readily gives it over to Tom. Just then a man drives up to Tomís work saying he wants to talk to a Tom Rowe. Tom goes over to see the man. It turns out the fellow is with the Birmingham police department. He wants Tom to arrange a meeting of the police chief  and the Klan leaders.

JT and Tom go into a restaurant kitchen where they meet with the chief of police. The cop tells the two Klansmen that black and white "Freedom Riders" are coming into Birmingham and he wants the Klan to beat the hell out of the civil rights workers. The police will keep the chief informed and the chief, in turn, will tell the Klan when the buses will arrive.

Tom practices his speech he wants to say to his wife, Billie Ruth. He says he has changed and will stop doing what he used to do because he loves her and wants to come home. He calls her, but he canít manage to say what he wanted to say to her.

The buses come in with the Freedom Riders and huge groups of angry white men descend on the station. They start beating up the Freedom Riders mercilessly. Tom is right in there helping the racists. After awhile of this, the policeman tells the white men to leave because the police are coming. Tom keeps on fighting instead of dispersing the crowd and someone takes out a pocket knife and quickly slashes Tom across the throat.

Jimmy tries to get Billie Ruth to open her door to her husband, but she refuses him entry. Take him to a Klan doctor, she yells. She tells Tom that he has to leave "us alone now".

Tomís throat is all bandaged up. He goes into the airport and sits in one of the telephone booths. Porter comes in and sits in a booth several booths away from Tom. They talk via the telephone. Tom is upset because his friend Yancey was killed, he has his own throat cut and his family doesnít want to see him anymore. Porter says the big wigs know about Tom and think heís doing a very good job.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is on. Federal troops are there to watch over the march. JT, Tom, Lester and Jimmy watch the action on TV. They decide to go out and get some of that action.

They go out riding and see a car driven by a white woman with a black man in the passenger seat. This enrages the white men and so they turn around and start chasing the woman. She keeps swerving her car on the road to prevent the rednecks from getting in front of them and cutting them off.

The KKK keeps chasing the woman until they get up beside her car and the men start shooting at the woman. She is hurt badly and crashes the car into a ditch on the side of the road. Now they rush over to check on the couple in the car. They are satisfied that the two are dead and leave.

Porter meets with Tom, who tells him he was right there when the KKK killed a white woman and a black man. Porter is enthused because they finally have something they can get the KKK on. Porter tells him that the woman was from Detroit and was big in the American labor movement. He also tells Tom that they will put him and his family into the witness relocation program.

President LBJ gets on the television to announce the arrest of three Klansmen for the murder of Viola Luizzo. The woman had five children. Tom watches the broadcast from a hotel room also harboring two FBI agents.

Porter comes in to check on Tom. Tom wants to know where his family is, but Porter has to tell him that Billie Ruth doesnít want to see him just now. He just says they are relocated. Porter tells Tom that they have two witnesses going up against Lester. They found the black man that was in the car with Viola Luizzo.

Tom canít believe it. He says the black man in the car was dead too. He saw the body all covered in blood. The black man played dead, says Porter. Tom doesnít believe him and thinks the FBI is trying to pull a fast one on him and the public. He tells Porter that it just didnít happen that way. Porter insists heís in the right, but Tom still doesnít believe him.

Hayneville, Alabama 1965. Lawyer Pat Murray and his client Lester pull up to the courthouse. When the defense attorney gets out of the car he immediately starts maligning Viola Luizzo. He says Viola Luizzio (sic) had no right to be running around in Alabama causing trouble when she had five children back in Michigan. She was involved in indecent surroundings and paid the price for it.

The black man Roscoe Cobb gets on the stand to testify. The defense attorney starts immediately asking what did Roscoe do to the woman while he was in the car with her? Roscoe, of course, says he didnít do anything to her. "You didnít lay your hands on her?" asks lawyer Murray. Did Roscoe shoot Mrs. Luizzo? Roscoe accuses Murray of trying to pin the murder on him. It was also brought out that at her death Mrs. Luizzo was not wearing any underpants.

Now Tom gets cross-examined. The defense attorney is so deeply offended that Tom swore before God not to divulge any of the organizationís secrets and yet that is the very thing Tom did.

Tom goes to his little home which is in a very isolated area. Weasel comes up with a gunny sack and throws two rattlers into the room. On the second attempted throw, Tom grabs Weasel and pulls him into the room and onto the floor. A rattler bites Weasel and he tells Tom that he must help him. The only thing Tom does is to open the door fully and lets the man start running for a hospital. He also tells Weasel that he will never make it.

The defense attorney starts maligning Tom Rowe. He says he is the same as Judas Iscariot. Like Judas he betrayed God just to get some pieces of silver. Tom is a liar and a perjurer and he is worse than a "white nigger".

Porter tells Tom that they found Weasel in the woods dead of a snake bite. Tom acts like he knows nothing about this Weasel fellow? When Tom is alone with Roscoe, he asks how much money did the Fed pay him for getting on the stand? Roscoe doesnít say a thing.

A hung jury is declared. The judge declares a mistrial with a big ass grin on his face. The townspeople celebrate the accused KKK men being freed.

Tom is very drunk when he shows up for his next meeting with Porter. Second trial date has been set with the same judge. The old defense attorney was in a traffic accident and is dead now.

In the second trial all the defendants are found not guilty. Tom is put on an airplane for his new home in Oregon. Porter says heís sorry to Tom and also says he does like Tom. He has one question for Tom. How did he get sucked into this?  Tom says he never had much self-esteem so he jumped at the chance to do something and be somebody. It just didnít work out the way he thought it would.

To help the FBI get Tomís cooperation again for more trials, Billie Ruth agrees to meet with Tom and let him see his kids. She says she did want to see him, but now she has a new man in her life and heís good to the children. Tom doesnít make a fuss about it, but reluctantly accepts the new situation. He leaves to say goodbye to the kids.

"Members of the Ku Klux Klan and other characters depicted in this film were composites of many different people. After an actual trial in the U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Alabama, three real members of the Klan were convicted of conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten or intimidate citizens of the United States. They were sentenced to ten years in Federal prison. Two of them served six years and the third died before starting to serve his term."

"Gary Thomas Rowe was rewarded for his undercover work with a job as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, and served with the U.S. Marshalís service for approximately one year. Shortly after shooting was completed on this film, the Lowndes County Alabama grand jury indicted Mr. Rowe for the murder of Viola Liuzzo."

 

 

Boy, this movie brings back a lot of bad memories for me.  I was a senior in high school when it happened.  I remember being very sad about the murder of Viola Luizzo and how mad I was later when the murderers were not convicted in the southern courts.  It took the Federal Courts to finally convict the men of a much lesser sentence.  

Tom Rowe, like a lot of informers, was no angel.  He was deeply prejudiced against blacks and had to have had mixed feelings about justice versus "outside agitators" coming down from the north to cause troubles in the south.  He participated in the crimes of the KKK and even claimed to have killed a black man in a riot.   This is why the Luizzo family had him in court on murder charges.  So, here's just another case of a bad/good man walking the line between good and evil. 

Don Meredith was very good as Tom Rowe, Jr.  He was good at portraying a man living between good and evil. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 


Historical Background:

 

1960 Ė Gary Thomas Rowe wrote that an F.B.I. agent urged him to join the Ku Klux Klan and report on its activities. He became a member of the Klan's Eastview 13 Klavern. F.B.I. records show that he received $200 to $300 a month from the bureau.

He testified that the F.B.I. had told him to cause dissension in the Klan. ''I was told to sleep with as many wives as I could, to break up marriages,'' he said.

Rowe believed that blacks should be treated fairy, but he did not approve of integrating schools or churches or neighborhoods or interracial marriage.

1961 Ė FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe took part in a baseball bat assault on Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama in 1961.

[Gary T. Rowe Jr., 64, Who Informed on Klan In Civil Rights Killing, Is Dead; New York Times; October 04, 1998; http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/04/us/gary-t-rowe-jr-64-who-informed-on-klan-in-civil-rights-killing-is-dead.html.]

1965 (March 7) Ė incident of the forcefully aborted civil rights march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the march from Selma to Montgomery which became known as "Bloody Sunday." Viola Luizzo was horrified by what happened.

1965 (Mary 16) Ė Viola took part in a protest at Wayne State where she was a freshman in college. She then called her husband to tell him she would be traveling to Selma, saying that the struggle "was everybody's fight."

1965 (March 25) Ė the civil rights march concluded.

Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old black man, helped drive local marchers to black colleges and to their homes. As she was driving her 1963 Oldsmobile on Route 80, a car tried to force them off the road. A car with four Klan members then pulled up alongside Liuzzo's car and shot directly at her, hitting her twice in the head, killing her instantly. Her car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence.

Although Moton was covered with blood, the bullets had missed him. He lay motionless when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. After the car left, he began running for the next half hour looking and searching for help, and eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley that was bringing civil rights workers back to Selma.

1965 (March 30) Ė Liuzzo's funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church on in Detroit, with many prominent members of both the civil rights movement and government there to pay their respects. Included in this group were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins; Congress on Racial Equality national leader James Farmer; Michigan lieutenant governor William G. Milliken; Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa; and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.

Less than two weeks after her death, a charred cross was found in front of four Detroit homes, including the Liuzzo residence.

The four Klan members in the car (Collie Wilkins (21), FBI informant Gary Rowe (34), William Eaton (41) and Eugene Thomas (42)) were quickly arrested.

Within 24 hours President Lyndon Johnson appeared personally on national television to announce their arrest.

1965 (April 22) Ė the three Klansmen were indicted for Liuzzo's death on April 22. Defense lawyer Matt Murphy quickly attempted to have the case dismissed on the grounds that President Johnson had violated the suspects' civil rights when he named them in his televised announcement. Murphy also indicated he would call Johnson as a witness during the upcoming trial.

1965 (May 3) Ė an all-white jury was selected for Wilkins' trial, with Rowe the key witness. Three days later, Murphy made blatantly racist comments during his final arguments, including calling Liuzzo a "white nigger," in order to sway the jury. The tactic was successful enough to result in a mistrial the following day (10-2 in favor of conviction).

1965 (May 10) Ė the three accused killers were part of a Klan parade which closed with a standing ovation for them.

1965 (August 20) Ė defense attorney Murphy was killed in an automobile accident when he fell asleep while driving and crashed into a gas tank truck.

The former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama Art Hanes agreed to take over representation for all three defendants one week later. Hanes was a staunch segregationist

1965 (October 20) Ė another all-white jury was selected for the retrial.

1965 (October 20) - it took the panel take less than two hours to acquit Wilkins in Liuzzo's slaying.

A federal trial charged the defendants with conspiracy under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction civil rights statute. The charges did not specifically refer to Liuzzo's murder.

1965 (December) Ė the KKK the trio was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

While out on appeal, Wilkins and Thomas were each found guilty of firearms violations and sent to jail for those crimes.

1966 (March 9) Ė Eaton, the only defendant who remained out of jail, died of a heart attack.

1966 (September 26) Ė the trial of Thomas got underway. The prosecution built a strong circumstantial case in the trial that included an FBI ballistics expert testifying that the bullet removed from the woman's brain was fired from a revolver owned by Thomas. Two witnesses testified they had seen Wilkins drinking beer at a VFW Hall near Birmingham, 125 miles from the murder scene, an hour or less after Liuzzo was shot. Thomas was acquitted of murder the following day after just 90 minutes of deliberations.

1967 (April 27) Ė the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the convictions of the surviving defendants, with Thomas serving six years in prison for the crime.

Due to threats from Klan, both before and after his testimony, Gary Thomas Rowe went into the federal witness protection program.

1977 (December 280 Ė the Liuzzo family, filed a lawsuit against the FBI, charging that Rowe, as an employee of the FBI, had failed to prevent Liuzzo's death and had in effect conspired in the murder.

1978 ĖRowe was indicted and was indicted and tried for his involvement in the murder, but the first trial ended in a hung jury. The second trial ended in his acquittal.

1979 (July 5) Ė the American Civil Liberties Union, filed another lawsuit on behalf of the family.

1983 (May 27) Ė a judge rejected the claims in the Liuzzo family lawsuit, saying there was "no evidence the FBI was in any type of joint venture with Rowe or conspiracy against Mrs. Liuzzo.

 

 

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