America has a redemption complex, which explains why we seem to be perpetually revisiting the South of the civil rights era to atone for the sins of segregation. Only this past June, front-page headlines proclaimed deliverance down in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where 80-year-old Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen was belatedly convicted of manslaughter for his role in the Klan execution, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, of civil rights activists James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The attraction of such dramas is obvious: They pit heroes against villains in silhouettes of black and white, and even if it takes forty-one years, as with the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman case, the good guys eventually triumph.

Of course, we know that the calculus of moral consequence is more ambiguous than that. Abstract principles like good and evil are often cunning agents of the ruthless truths concealed in human nature, notably the blind consistency with which those who have power take advantage of those who don’t. “Fine Christian gentleman,” after all, was code in the South for “segregationist.” Indeed, even the most decent of white Southerners exploited the fraudulent superiority conferred on them by simple virtue of their skin color. This was the sort of garden-variety conformism that the social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew argued did not reflect serious conviction. What, then, is to account for the rogues and dissidents, those who took up positions on the polar ends of the racial status quo, either as extremist abusers of their power or as champions of the powerless?

The perplexing dynamics of moral choice are explored in two new books about ordinary Southern white men who ended up on opposite sides of the civil rights revolution during the final cataclysmic days of segregation. In both, (im)moral behavior seems less like a conscious act than the slippery-slope momentum of random historical and biographical convergence. Son of the Rough South is Karl Fleming’s memoir of how he transcended an “uncivil” boyhood in an orphanage to bear intrepid witness to the civil rights struggle as a Southern correspondent for Newsweek in the 1960s. While Fleming was covering the martyrs of the Movement–and occasionally, as in Philadelphia, Mississippi, risking his own life–Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the subject of Gary May’s The Informant, was helping to create them. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s undercover man inside the Ku Klux Klan, Rowe parlayed his sole obvious asset, his whiteness, into a license–arguably–to kill, drawing the federal government into a foggy collaboration with the hooded brotherhood of paramilitary segregationists. The toxic codependency between Rowe and the FBI culminated in the debacle that is the focus of May’s book: On the final day of the voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery in the spring of 1965, a white activist from Michigan named Viola Liuzzo was stalked by four Klansmen and shot to death; one of the men was Rowe.

Both Tommy Rowe and Karl Fleming were poor white children of the Depression-era South. Like many of their ilk, Rowe turned on his hard-up black confederates with the vehemence of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. Fleming was different. His experience made him identify with the underdog. At age 8, he had been delivered to a Methodist orphanage in North Carolina by his mother, a washed-out, passive-aggressive widow who “ate enormous meals all the while complaining that she could ‘hardly eat a mouthful.'” Fleming achieved a sense of self-reliance and discipline by way of the usual challenges–backbreaking chores and inventive play (slingshots fashioned from dogwood branches)–amid similarly lost boys called Cootie, Big Jeebie, Snot-Eye and Little Nigger. The last nickname notwithstanding, the orphanage was white-only, and young Fleming claimed no racial consciousness. The orphanage boys’ turf battles with the local black kids (“soda crackers” versus “niggers”), he says, were merely contests of virility: “We had no idea what racism was.” He found out in the late 1940s when, following a stint in the Navy and a couple years of college, he fell into a reporting job at the Daily Times of Wilson, North Carolina.

Literary treatment of the color line tends to favor the Epiphany School of Racial Consciousness, in which the white protagonist wises up to the injustice around him in a de-blinding flash. But Fleming’s account bears out my sense that the “moment of truth” is more often an accrued recognition of the systemically corrupting evil of segregation. And there’s nothing that drives the point home like “My First Bad Cop,” as Fleming titles his chapter on the subterranean rites of segregation in Wilson. The policeman was Ray Hartis, a detective who invited the young general-assignment reporter on his rounds through “niggertown”: “Come on, kid. Let’s go out amongst ’em.” Fleming sensed that the detective’s brutality against African-Americans–he batters a gray-haired gent said to have joined the “N-Double-Fuckin’-A-C-P”–was more than the sadism of an individual, and that his psychotic misanthropy was fueled by fury at the hypocrisy of Wilson’s society-page elite, including the prominent white doctor who had a secret black consort. Ironically, the neutral “objectivity” dictated by Fleming’s press badge, while it excused him from taking a moral stand, allowed him an enlightening glimpse into the workings of segregation: Hartis “had done the dirty work of keeping the niggers in line,” Fleming writes. “[The citizens] had wanted him to do it, and they hadn’t wanted to know any of the unpleasant details.”

That essentially sums up the FBI’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., its star informant in the Klan. To be sure, Rowe was officially charged with keeping the Kluxers in line, but his alternative function was as the FBI’s id, violently acting out Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous animus toward the civil rights movement. Born in Savannah in 1933 (six years after Fleming), Rowe was a classic macho-loser type, a beefy, hell-raising, child-neglecting, uneducated cop wannabe who got his kicks riding around with policemen in his adopted city of Birmingham, Alabama. In 1960 26-year-old Rowe’s Walter Mitty fantasies came true when the FBI offered to pay him to join the Klan–with whose members he already fraternized–and report on its activities. Only after Rowe “infiltrated” Birmingham’s flagship Klan chapter, Eastview 13, did the group begin to make its mark as the most violent organization of racists in the country. In Eastview’s newsmaking debut, on Mother’s Day 1961, Rowe and his Klan brethren appeared at the Birmingham Trailways station to greet the Freedom Riders–an interracial protest group integrating bus terminals across the South–and, with the blessings of the local police, beat them bloody. Although the FBI knew of the plot in advance, it did nothing either to stop the assault or to protect the Freedom Riders; nor did it move against the known perpetrators after the fact, perhaps because its own informant was photographed throwing some punches.

From then on, fearful of Hoover’s bureaucratic wrath–and well-aware of their informant’s fickle relationship with the truth–Rowe’s FBI handlers would keep their sinking doubts to themselves: Did he prevent the Klan from committing even more atrocities (May concludes that in two or three cases Rowe did avert some mayhem), or would the worst crimes have ever occurred if his double life as a Klansman hadn’t enjoyed the protection of the FBI? When Rowe’s klavern-mates bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, killing four black girls, FBI agents were worried enough about Rowe’s possible participation in this quadruple child-murder that they withheld his picture from the photographs of suspects routinely shown to potential witnesses. (May is agnostic on whether Rowe was directly involved.)

On the Sunday of the Birmingham church bombing, the parallel careers of Rowe and Fleming, who otherwise had nothing in common but a humble pedigree and a drinking habit, finally intersected. While the FBI wrung its dirty hands, Fleming arrived on the scene with his notebook to record the agony of the victims’ families. In both The Informant and Son of the Rough South, the descriptions of that apocalypse are undramatically perfunctory, reflecting a trend I have observed over years of reading books about the civil rights era. Often as soon as the story reaches the turning points that are its raison d’être–the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham firehose-and-police-dog demonstrations–the writing goes slack, as if with fatigue. Certainly, the volume of material already in print on the subject would cause any writer’s imagination to seize up. But I think too that there is no moral vocabulary to encompass the relentless transgressions against human decency that are the counterpoint narrative of the civil rights struggle, and when an author tries to register the appropriate outrage, the call of the cliché becomes irresistible.

Whereas Fleming’s craft soars to a level of artful elegance in the early chapters, with blunt, unsentimental language full of casual grace notes, his writing about the Movement milestones tends toward hurried exposition connecting rather unreflective descriptions of physical conflict. (And the basic chronological errors–placing the Freedom Rides in 1960 rather than 1961–seem almost perverse coming from a reporter whose work is a primary source for scholars in the field.) White rioters shoot at Fleming in Oxford, Mississippi, during the campus riot over James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss in 1962; during a 1963 Birmingham race riot, “Colonel” Al Lingo, the head of the Alabama State Highway Patrol, pokes him in the gut with a shotgun; in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Deputy Cecil Price stonewalls him right after delivering Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman to the Klan ambush. The most satisfying example of Fleming’s civil rights moxie is not the macho showdowns with fellow rough Southerners but the prim dinner party he threw in Atlanta in the early 1960s, integrated by a black college professor. “Nobody dared have too much to drink,” Fleming notes. “The risk of saying something improper was too great.” It becomes clear what a far frontier this mercifully truncated evening was when Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill calls Fleming for step-by-step advice on how to hold his first interracial soiree–e.g., alert the local precinct that blacks will be visiting your all-white neighborhood so that the police won’t arrest them. Though Fleming graciously declines to make the point, it’s remarkable that he, the young novitiate, had to offer such guidance to McGill, the revered patron saint of the South’s tiny cult of white racial apostates.

The writerly challenge faced by Gary May–a history professor at the University of Delaware (whom I have met professionally and occasionally provided information from my Gary Thomas Rowe files)–is how to conjure up a multidimensional narrative from the low life of a Klansman. Rowe is a ludicrously grandiose figure, a pathological liar with a surprising, poignant streak of altruism. But the paradoxical problem of letting his Klan exploits speak for themselves is that eventually they start to seem more ridiculous than heinous. (“Fred Henson, the [KKK] hypnotist, was the first member of Eastview Klavern to hear about the little black boy in Odenville.”) And so, while the civil rights razzle-dazzle in Fleming’s book seems almost like an afterthought to a passionate Bildungsroman, Rowe’s active FBI service during the Movement heyday proves to be the preamble to The Informant‘s truly Shakespearean second half.

Viola Liuzzo arrived in Alabama with symmetric inevitability in the spring of 1965, as the Klan was preparing its rejoinder to the huge voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Though she lived in Detroit, Liuzzo was, like Rowe, a hard-luck Southerner with a checkered marital history; her daughter described Liuzzo’s third marriage, to a Teamster official (and, May reveals, accused extortionist), as “a combination of ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.'” Also like Rowe, Liuzzo had quixotic aspirations, though hers were to bring about social justice. Balancing motherhood (she had five children), a tumultuous marriage, and the pursuit of respectable work and a college degree unhinged her in early 1963; “She had the idea that if she didn’t admit herself to the hospital,” her psychiatrist explained, “she might kill herself and her family.” In March 1965, not long after watching news footage of Colonel Lingo’s state troopers bludgeoning voting-rights marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” she headed to Alabama, leaving her kids in the care of her longtime best friend, Sarah Evans, who was black.

Nine days later, the children were motherless. On the final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Rowe and three Klan brothers pulled even with Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile alongside a swamp on US Highway 80. Two of the men took aim with a .38 pistol and a shotgun, and blasted Liuzzo into history. The black teenager who was her surviving passenger reported that Liuzzo had been humming “We Shall Overcome.”

When Rowe turned in his fellow Klansmen, the Liuzzo family, the US Justice Department and the public embraced the informant as a law-enforcement angel. No one asked why an undercover man on the government payroll made no effort to stop a cold-blooded execution. At the trial of the first defendant (the alleged shooter), the Klan lawyer Matt Murphy, a downwardly mobile alcoholic cousin of Walker Percy, the novelist of Southern aristocracy, put in a performance so grotesquely sweaty that it unglued his toupee–and landed him on the cover of Life. (He asked the pathologist who examined Liuzzo’s corpse to describe body odors, evidence of sexual intercourse and “puncture marks in her arms at all where a hypodermic needle might have been used.”) But Rowe, indistinguishable from his FBI handlers in suit and shades, presented testimony so sure-footed that, astoundingly, the jury deadlocked–ten out of twelve white men from the depths of “Bloody Lowndes” County voted for conviction, some of the ayes professing disgust with Murphy.

At the Klansman’s retrial several months later, however, what passed for normalcy had returned to the Alabama courtroom. In one of the book’s more surreal evocations of people walking through their imposed roles oblivious of the moral resonance, the trial professionals take to the scenic courthouse lawn during jury deliberations for a game of touch football. The prosecutors, reporters and FBI men square off against the defense lawyers, Alabama state troopers and Klansmen; they call themselves the “Outside Agitators” versus the “Local Rednecks.” Though the winner of the game was not recorded, inside the courtroom the home team scored a timely acquittal. As one local put it, the jury wanted to be out before the 7:30 kick-off for the high school football game.

The Justice Department eventually nailed the three Klansmen with ten-year prison sentences on federal charges of depriving Liuzzo of her civil rights. The increasingly unmanageable Rowe was rewarded with a new identity under the Federal Witness Protection Program, a dream job as a deputy US marshal in San Diego, plus a cash sum of $10,000 for “invaluable service.” By contrast, Liuzzo’s family was barraged with insults to her martyrdom. One letter writer described her mission in Alabama as a quest for “black meat.” A Ladies’ Home Journal focus group of middle-class suburban women hotly insisted that she should have “stayed home and minded her own business.” May neutralizes the conventional wisdom that the FBI masterminded the smears against Liuzzo in the press, though here is J. Edgar Hoover’s reaction to Jim Liuzzo’s request for the government’s help in canceling the car payments on his dead wife’s Olds, still in the custody of the State of Alabama: “Liuzzo seems more interested in cash rather than in grief over his wife’s death.” While the widower sank to alcoholism (and, later, arson), the five Liuzzo children ran through a Job’s lot of failed marriages, social ostracism, depression, a botched illegal abortion, drug abuse, juvenile court, straitjacketed hospitalization, crummy jobs and prison. Only the FBI’s outstanding debt to the devil offered the Liuzzos any hope of redemption.

The government had tried to terminate its Faustian bargain with Rowe in 1967, severing him from the payroll on account of his brawling, boozing and lying. Broke and woebegone within three years, Rowe hired a lawyer to help him bedevil his former employer. In December 1975, donning a Klannish mask for identity protection, Rowe testified about his problematic career before Senator Frank Church’s Committee on Government Operations. With Hoover dead and the country repentant over the sins committed during his reign, Rowe became a celebrity FBI whistleblower cum Klan slayer, complete with a commercially published memoir called My Undercover Years with the Ku Klux Klan.

And then it was onto the next identity crisis.

Backed by a polygraph, two of the Klansmen who had chased down Viola Liuzzo (the third had died) appeared on ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20, saying that the triggerman had actually been the FBI’s own informant. A few months after the show aired in July 1978, an Alabama grand jury indicted Rowe for Liuzzo’s murder. The charges were dismissed on appeal (and May, whose research is authoritative, concludes that Rowe was not the shooter). But the paradigm had finally shifted. In July 1979, the Liuzzo children sued the FBI in federal court, seeking $2 million in damages for the wrongful death of their mother.

There are many stomach-turning passages in The Informant, but the ones that sickened me most concerned the Justice Department lawyers’ exertions to annihilate the Liuzzos’ legal claim. Though the destructive folie à deux between Rowe and the FBI arguably grew out of incremental and ultimately banal negligence more than malice, the scorched-earth tactics of the Justice attorneys to defend that relationship beggar the moral imagination. In pretrial depositions one lawyer abusively challenged the children to explain why their mother’s life was worth any money. Echoing the South’s blame-the-victim bad faith, another Justice attorney tried in vain to make Liuzzo’s psychiatrist say that she had a “death wish.” After casting her murder as a suicide, the government gratuitously painted Rowe, in May’s words, as “the real injured party.” The judge returned a decision resoundingly in the government’s favor, and then went the extra mile, ordering the Liuzzos to pay the Justice Department’s legal costs. Tony Liuzzo, who had faithfully honored the social-justice agenda for which his mother died, joined the antigovernment ranks of the Michigan Militia, even though its other notable cause was white supremacy.

The unrelenting cruelty and sorrow described in both The Informant and Son of the Rough South make one marvel at how the country has been able to finesse from this record of shame one of our most uplifting national myths, about the fulfillment of a dream of freedom. Even for the relatively fortunate Karl Fleming, the date with Movement destiny turned out to be a prelude to personal descent: alcoholism, mental breakdown and professional humiliation when the Los Angeles weekly he founded folded in 1972 after he published an interview with a con man claiming to be the legendary skyjacker D.B. Cooper. Looking back across the wreckage, Fleming sees his Movement days as a postponement of the inevitable reckoning with his fate as an orphan of history.

Fleming happened to be in Mississippi on his book tour in June when Preacher Killen went on trial there. The old civil rights hand wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times recalling the moonshine-swilling mob that had greeted him forty-one years ago, when he and the New York Times‘s Claude Sitton had been the first two national reporters to show up in Philadelphia after the disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. This time around, the local women baked cookies for the outside media, who had come to bear witness to the town’s redemption. At least Fleming got to partake in Philadelphia’s reconciliationist largesse. So often in the reconstructed South, it seems, the healing process works chiefly to the benefit of those who did not suffer the wounds.