Gary May is the author of The Informant, about SELMA ’65 character Gary Thomas Rowe and a major research source for the play, premiering at La MaMa in NYC this fall. May is also the author of Bending Toward Justice, the foremost book on Voting Rights in America. Here he is interviewed about his work, Tommy Rowe, Viola Liuzzo, and the current state of Voting Rights.
Photo Credit: Alton Christensen/Moyers and Company
What’s your background as an author?
Gary May: I’m a Professor of History at the University of Delaware and I’ve written five books. My third book, The Informant, is one of the sources that Catherine drew from to write her play.
How did you meet Catherine? Did she contact you?
Gary May: She contacted me because she had come across the book and it’s really the only major book that’s been written about the Liuzzo story. There’s another, a kind of biography of Liuzzo but, at least in my view, I don’t think it’s a good or reliable book. Mine is based on research in FBI records, and the records of Gary Thomas Rowe, who was the Klan informant. I also interviewed members of the Liuzzo family and the FBI agent who supervised Tommy Rowe during his years inside the Klan.
Watch a discussion of May’s book The Informant here.
What inspired you to write about Viola Liuzzo?
Gary May: I’m the kind of historian who’s primarily interested in a good story. I guess I’m like a journalist in that sense and here was the untold story of a woman, a 39 year old Detroit housewife, who became swept up in the Civil Rights Movement and decided to drive alone to Selma, Alabama, for the Voting Rights March in March of 1965. After the march ended and Dr.King gave his speech, she was traveling with a black colleague, helping to ferry people to airports and bus stations to get them back home. Suddenly, she found herself being followed by a car on highway 80, which connects Selma to Montgomery, the capital. The car pulled along side of her. The four men inside the car fired guns at her and killed her. (Rowe claimed that he just pointed his gun out the window and pretended to fire. His FBI handler believed him.) Amazingly, her companion was not hit by any of the bullets and was only slightly injured. He was able to flag down some civil rights workers and got a ride back to Selma. And the crime was very quickly solved because of the presence of Tommy Rowe, the FBI informant.
I started my work around the year 2000. I got in touch with the family and the family attorney, who sued the FBI in the 1970’s in wrongful death lawsuit. They lost the lawsuit, but what was so fortunate for me was that the FBI was forced to turn over to Dean Robb, the family attorney who brought the lawsuit, all of Gary Thomas Rowe’s records as an informant. Usually, the FBI never discloses informant records which are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. So I got a ton of records, unredacted, which allowed me to reconstruct this really interesting story.
Is there any connection between your work on The Informant and your work on Bending Toward Justice, your latest book on the voting rights act?
Gary May: In part, yes, I found that writing about the Civil Rights Movement is just fascinating. It’s almost biblical. There isn’t any story that’s more interesting, more dramatic, and more inspiring than the story of people who are almost imprisoned by southern segregation and are able to rise up nonviolently and organize and are able to pressure Washington, pressure Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to intervene and send to congress first the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in public accommodations; hotels, motels. And then the Voting Rights Act in 1965.So I decided that I would try to write a book about the making of the Voting Rights Act, but my real emphasis in this book was telling the stories of the “unsung heroes,” who most American’s had never heard of. If you think of the Voting Rights Act, for example, you think of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, and that’s the whole story. Of course, it’s a much larger and longer story than most people are aware of and that’s what I concentrated on in the book, as well as describing in a colorful way the legislative maneuvering that passed the act, and its renewal in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. By chance, the book came out in April of 2013 and two months later, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and the book received a lot of attention. I was able to participate in the dialogue that ensued. I must have done about 30 interviews in newspapers, on NPR affiliates all over the country, on MSNBC’s The Cycle and the Tavis Smiley Show.. But the highpoint was being invited to appear on Bill Moyers and Company. It’s been a great experience for me, but more importantly, I hope that I was able to educate many Americans who were unaware of the men and women who risked everything—their homes, their jobs, and even their lives—to win the right to vote.
So how did you feel after the gutting of the act and knowing that this play was being written?
Gary May: I knew about the play being written for at least a year. I was very happy to hear about it. The Informant has been optioned by various Hollywood producers at least 5 times but it takes years to make a film. I’m excited that Catherine Filloux and Marietta Hedges have created this amazing play.
I’m wondering if you can expand perhaps on the state of where we are now, a year after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Do you feel that Viola and Tommy Rowe’s story speaks directly to something like this?
May’s latest book on the Voting Rights Act, Bending Toward Justice. Read more about the book here.
Gary May: On June 25, 2013, the Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, struck down section 4 of the VRA, the formula which determined which states are required to submit any changes to their voting practices to the Justice Department prior to doing it.(That’s Section 5, “Preclearance,” it’s called.) In the year since then, the Congress has failed to revive the act. But there have been a number of successful lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arkansas which have prevented voter suppression efforts (voter IDs, limiting early voting, etc) from going into effect.
One encouraging sign that the Civil Rights Movement might be reviving is North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement, a biracial organization that is fighting voter suppression efforts in that state. If Viola Liuzzo were alive, I bet she would have joined that movement. The fight for equality at the polls, and in many other places, continues, and democracy will only succeed if more people, like Liuzzo, commit themselves to that struggle, despite the ever present dangers posed by the Tommy Rowes who still lurk in the shadows of prejudice.