BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In 1978, Robert Chambliss was talking to Capt. Jack LeGrand from Kilby Correctional Facility.
The year before, Chambliss had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his part in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, which led to the deaths of four Black girls and over a dozen other injuries. Chambliss, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was the only person who had been convicted in connection with the bombing at the time, but Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley was continuing to investigate and gather more information on who else was involved.
Capt. LeGrand, who was investigating the case on behalf of the Birmingham Police Department, asked Chambliss about a letter that referenced Gary Thomas Rowe, a former bouncer and ambulance driver who had been in the KKK at the time.
“You state in this letter that Rowe was the head leader in all the bombings in and around Birmingham,” LeGrand asked Chambliss in a transcription of the interview provided by the Birmingham Public Library’s Department of Archives and Manuscripts.
“That’s right,” Chambliss said.
“Well, what do you base that statement on?”
“Well, he bragged about being the head leader of the bunch, you know, that run together.”
“Well, other than the statement you’ve already told us previously, what else led you to believe he was a leader in all the bombings in and around Birmingham?”
“Because every time that anything was bombed, he would come back to the meetings and brag about it, brag about how he done such and such.”
“What did he say in reference to the Sixteenth Street Church bombings?”
“He just said ‘We bombed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, but we just didn’t put out enough.’ Said we ought to put out enough to level the damn thing, said it was full of them d— little Jewish rabbis.”
In letters he had written to his family from prison, Chambliss proclaimed his innocence and that Rowe was not only involved in the 16th Street Baptist bombing, but was also a member of the CIA.
In reality, Rowe had been an FBI informant that reported on activities the KKK was involved in. However, at the time, and well after his death in 1998, many questions have been asked on Rowe’s involvement with the KKK. How was he involved in violent fights while working for the FBI? How was he possibly involved in the church bombing and the murder of a civil rights protester in Selma back in 1965?
In his 1976 memoir “My Undercover Years with the Ku Klux Klan,” Rowe starts telling his story by beginning with his love of fighting.
“Soon after I came to Birmingham the word got around that I loved to fight, and people came from all over to beat Tommy Rowe,” wrote Rowe. In the book, Rowe is described as “an ambulance driver, a bouncer and a karate expert” before becoming an FBI informant. “I made it a habit to wear a sissified bow tie that made me look as if I sang in a choir somewhere, and it fooled everybody. After one glance, truck drivers, wrestlers, brawlers, all decided I’d be a pushover.”
In the book, Rowe discussed one night as he broke up a fight at a bar he was working at.
“After the club closed, the bartender called me over and said, “Why don’t you join the Ku Klux Klan,'” Rowe wrote. “’I’ve done my share of fighting,’ I answered. ‘But I never hid behind a sheet to do it. As far as I’m concerned the Kluxers are strictly punks.’”
Rowe wrote that one day in 1960, an FBI agent had gone to his house to talk to him about a case he was working on. Having wanted to have a career in law enforcement, Rowe was known to police officers who frequented the bars he worked in. In fact, according to Diane McWhorter’s “Carry Me Home,” Rowe had once been arrested in 1956 for impersonating an officer. It was here where the agent allegedly asked him about joining the KKK as an FBI informant, which he remained in for several years.
“Why did I agree to become an undercover agent? I suppose there are many answers to that question, one of which must surely be, ‘just for the hell of it.’ I have always sought excitement and danger, and even when I didn’t win a fight I enjoyed it. There was plenty of risk in this job. I nearly died when my throat was cut in a bus riot. The Klan planned to kill me several times. My role was not a dull assignment.”
However, throughout his time in the KKK, Rowe admitted to taking part in several demonstrations where he beat protestors. Namely, he was involved in the Freedom Riders demonstration in 1961, where he claimed that the Birmingham Police Department allowed him and other Klan members 15 minutes to wreak havoc before they would break up the fight.
“We were promised 15 minutes with absolutely no intervention from any police officer whatsoever,” a hooded Rowe told the Church Committee, a Senate hearing on undercover governmental operations in 1975. “Approximately 15 minutes after the Freedom Riders were attacked, a police officer ran over to me and stated, “Godd—it, godd—it, get out of there. Get them out of here. Your 15 minutes are up and we’re sending the crew.”
However, one of the biggest questions from Rowe’s involvement with the KKK was if he was or wasn’t connected to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963. The men who eventually were convicted– Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry– all knew Rowe and were all in the KKK.
In his book, Rowe only mentioned how the bombing had made the FBI more strict in how it dealt with him.
“With anger, grief and tension simmering in the city, and the constant possibility of new violence, the agents felt they had to be able to account for my position at any given time,” Rowe wrote. “Consequently, I was required to call three times a day. Next, I had to meet an agent at least once a day. Finally I had to call in every time I moved from one section of Birmingham to another. I also had to turn in a complete log of my daily activities.”
In 1975, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley interviewed Rowe about where he was the day of the bombing. Rowe claimed he was at home when a police dispatcher who knew his informant status had called to tell him that the church had been bombed.
“‘She said ‘I’m just so glad you’re home,'” Rowe said in the transcript. “I said, ‘What the hell is the matter?’ and she said ‘You didn’t bomb the church?’ Then I said ‘What church?’ and she said ‘Hey look, I’m happy you’re home and I know you’re not involved.’ She said to me ‘You better call the (FBI) office. I understand it’s some little black kids have been killed down at the church and we’re now fixing to dispatch ambulances and units, but had to get the information to you to be sure you were home.'”
By 1977, Baxley had given Rowe a polygraph test, asking him whether or not he was involved in the bombing or if he knew that it was going to happen. While Rowe denied any involvement, the results of his polygraph tests told a different story.
“A careful review of Mr. Rowe’s charges reveal, in my opinion, the charts are deceptive concerning the aforementioned relevant questions,” said Charles Hess, the polygraph examiner in a letter to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. “From a subjective point of view, I should point out that the charges, even though they are deceptive by the criteria we use, are not what I would expect to see from a person who was actually responsible for the planning of the bomb. I realize you did not solicit a subjective opinion, but I am offering one in the event it may be of any service to you. The charges are more considered with what we see when a person is withholding vital information, even though they are technically answering the question truthfully.”
Nonetheless, Rowe was never charged in the case.
However, involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was not the only thing Rowe was accused of. In addition to being accused of bombing the A.G. Gaston Motel, Rowe was also accused of killing Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist from Detroit, by shooting her from a car while she was marching with others from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. While Rowe admitted he was in the car with other KKK members who shot at Liuzzo, he said he did not pull the trigger. At one point, Rowe was used as a witness to point the finger at others responsible in the act.
Following his testimony in the Liuzzo murder case, the FBI placed Rowe in the Witness Protection Program as Thomas Neil Moore, giving him a job as a U.S. Marshal in California.
He was eventually moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he died in 1998. At one point, Alabama authorities wanted to have him extradited back to Alabama to stand trial in Liuzzo’s murder, but that was unsuccessful.
Over the years, historians have raised questions about Rowe’s alleged involvement in the church bombing.
“It’s hard to believe that Rowe, who was involved in so many violent events, was the only one of his group of Klan companions to be unaware of what was planned for Sunday, September 15, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” author Gary Mary wrote in his book on Rowe, “The Informant.” “When Rowe was polygraphed in the late 1970s, the results were mixed: One test indicated that he had prior knowledge, and the other, direct involvement. Doubts about his role would continue for the rest of his life.”
In “The Informant,” May argued that at the very least, Rowe may have known that a bomb had been placed at the church.
“…His failure to report it before it exploded makes him an accessory to that awful crime,” May wrote. “Just as bad was (FBI Director Herbert) Hoover’s decision to protect his informants instead of prosecuting the bombers, illustrating how the informant system sometimes interfered with or prevented law enforcement.”