Ex-Freedom Rider James Peck Finds a New Villain Behind His Savage 1961 Beating—the F.B.I.

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

When the bus pulled into the Trail-ways station in Birmingham, Ala. on Mother's Day, 1961, James Peck knew that he was in for trouble. Waiting for him on the sidewalk was a mob of 30 smirking young men, some carrying pipes and chains. Traveling as a "Freedom Rider" through the segregated South trying to integrate bus facilities, Peck was accustomed to such scenes. He had already been beaten and arrested. So Peck, then a 46-year-old white from New York, and a black Freedom Rider named Charles Person stepped off the bus and resolutely walked toward the "whites only" lunch counter.

They never got there. The mob, composed of Ku Klux Klansmen, pummeled them with fists, chains and clubs. Peck was knocked unconscious, his scalp and face ripped with wounds that required 53 stitches to close. "When I saw Peck, I was shocked," remembers Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham civil rights leader now living in Cincinnati. "His head was split down to the skull. Somebody had cracked him with a lead pipe. Peck was bloody as a hog."

Today that ugly scene—splashed on front pages across America nearly 22 years ago—is again the subject of controversy. In a federal court in New York this week, Peck is suing the United States government for what he claims was its complicity in the beating. Among the Klansmen who staged the brutal attacks was a man named Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., who was a paid undercover informer reporting directly to the FBI.

Even before the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Rowe had informed his FBI superiors that local police and the Klan had entered into a conspiracy: The police agreed to allow the Klansmen 15 minutes to beat the Freedom Riders before entering the bus station. But FBI officials in Birmingham and Washington did nothing to prevent the attack, in which Rowe actively participated. Peck is requesting $600,000 in damages.

Peck's suit, the first of three actions being brought against the FBI over Rowe's activities against civil rights workers, raises a difficult legal issue. Peck charges that the FBI's inaction was a dereliction of its duty to "prevent crime and to protect United States citizens from known attempts to deprive them of their civil rights." The government maintains that the FBI is simply an investigatory agency and is not required to protect private individuals. "The government's position is that it violated no duty to the plaintiff," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Salerno. "The FBI didn't have a duty to man the barricades with their agents. I don't even think they had the legal right to do it."

Peck's case would probably never have come to court if Gary Rowe had not appeared before a Senate committee in 1975 and recounted the bizarre story of his violent career as a Klansman and FBI informer. In 1960, when he says he joined the Klan at the FBI's behest and began informing the FBI of its activities, Rowe was a 27-year-old Alabama dairy worker with a minor arrest record for impersonating law enforcement officers. Over the next five years Rowe received more than $12,000 from the FBI. During that time, by his own admission, he was directly involved in many acts of racial violence, including the Freedom Rider assaults, attacks on blacks in integrated buses, restaurants and an amusement park, a Klan raid on the home of a white family that was raising a black child, and the murder of Viola Liuzzo after the famous Selma march of 1965. Rowe informed his FBI superiors of his activities, but only after the Liuzzo murder did they use the information to prosecute Klan members. After Rowe's testimony helped to convict three Klansmen in the Liuzzo case, the FBI provided him with a new identity, an additional $10,000 and a new occupation, as a deputy U.S. marshal in California.

After Rowe's startling Senate testimony—and newspaper accounts linking him to the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls in 1963—a Justice Department task force investigated Rowe's activities. Its exhaustive study—completed in 1979—is now a central document in Peck's case against the government. The study confirmed that the FBI's Birmingham office had informed J. Edgar Hoover in advance of the Klan-police plot to attack the Freedom Riders, and it concluded that Hoover did nothing to prevent it. It also revealed that Rowe himself had assaulted Freedom Riders, a black bystander, a photographer and a radio reporter. "Rowe," the report states, "was one of the handful most responsible for the violence at the bus station."

According to the report, instead of disciplining Rowe, Birmingham FBI officials paid him a bonus of $125 on that occasion. The report, to which Peck gained access through the Freedom of Information Act, criticized the FBI for its handling of the situation: "It is indeed unfortunate that the Bureau did not take additional action to prevent the violence, such as notifying the Attorney General and the United States Marshals Service, who might have been able to do something."

That, in essence, is James Peck's contention in his lawsuit. A scion of a wealthy New York family, Peck has devoted his life to civil rights and antiwar causes, working as a full-time volunteer for CORE and the War Resisters League. The father of two grown children, Peck, now 68 and a widower, suffered a stroke several months ago and remains in a New York hospital. Lying on his back, tubes running from his emaciated body, he speaks bitterly about the FBI. "In those days, in the South, the FBI was totally aligned with the bigots," he says. "After I was beaten, FBI agents wanted to see me. I told them my story, and when I got finished, they didn't ask a single question. That's indicative of how interested they were." Peck is not cynical, however, about the gains of the civil rights movement. "In five short years—from 1960 to 1965—it transformed the face of the South," he says. "Segregation was abolished in all public places. There are no more 'white' and 'colored' signs." The Freedom Riders helped to speed that process. "By that fall, segregation in travel was ended," he states. And that, he is eager to add, made his Birmingham beating worth the pain.

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