University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
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Case Name United States v. Wilkins FA-AL-0004
Docket / Court 23289 ( M.D. Ala. )
State/Territory Alabama
Case Type(s) Election/Voting Rights
Speech and Religious Freedom
Special Collection Civil Rights Division Archival Collection
Selma and early civil rights enforcement
Attorney Organization U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Case Summary
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

Thousands of demonstrators walked from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 protesting racial discrimination in Alabama and ... read more >
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

Thousands of demonstrators walked from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 protesting racial discrimination in Alabama and the persistent deprivation of the Alabama black population's right to vote. This historic march was made possible by an injunction from a federal court prohibiting state officials from interfering and compelling them to protect the protesters.

Viola Liuzzo was following the unrest in Selma in the news from her home in Michigan. In an effort to contribute, she drove to Montgomery to help transport protesters back to Selma on March 25. After dropping off several protesters in Selma, she was driving back with a fellow volunteer - 19 year-old Leroy Moton - when four Klansmen began to pursue Liuzzo's car upon seeing a white woman driving with a black man. When they caught up to her, they shot her in the head. The car veered off the road, but Moton survived and called state authorities. Alabama Governor George Wallace, a famous segregationist with repeated bids for president, then informed the FBI, who proceeded with an investigation.

The murder immediately caught national attention, and President Johnson delivered a statement the next day condemning the murder and asking the U.S. Attorney General to bring the Klansmen to justice.

The four Klansmen were brought before a Grand Jury in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. On April 6, 1965, the Grand Jury indicted three of the men - Collie Wilkins, William Eaton, and Eugene Thomas - on conspiracy "to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate citizens of the United States in the vicinity of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama in the free exercise and enjoyment of certain rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States." The fourth individual - Gary Rowe - was an FBI informant, and although he was initially charged, the Grand Jury did not indict him. Specifically, the Klansmen were indicted for infringing on the right to peacefully assemble, the right to travel, the right to protest, and the right to encourage black citizens of their right to register and vote. The Grand Jury found that as part of this conspiracy, the Klansmen harassed, threatened, and assaulted those participating or assisting with the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The Grand Jury noted that this march was approved by Judge Frank Johnson in Williams v. Wallace.

At that point, Governor Wallace and the state attorney general intervened and asked that the Klansmen be tried before a state court instead. The Klansmen were thus brought before a state grand jury, which indicted only Wilkins for first degree murder. Wilkins was tried twice on murder charges (Alabama v. Wilkins, No. 155). The first trial ended in a hung jury, with 10 jurors voting for conviction and two jurors voting for acquittal. The second trial resulted in acquittal for Wilkins. Both juries were entirely compromise of white men.

The case then returned to federal court, but was limited to the conspiracy charges brought by the federal Grand Jury. The court limited the scope of the federal indictment to conspiracy to deprive individuals of the right to participate specifically in the Selma-to-Montgomery march as detailed in prior injunction issued in Williams v. Wallace.

The defendants moved to dismiss on November 19, 1965, but the court denied their motion.

On December 3, 1965, a jury found the Klansmen guilty of conspiracy that violated Liuzzo's civil rights. The Klansmen were charged under 18 U.S.C. § 241, which made it a crime to "conspire to to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution." The court sentenced them to 10 years in prison. Judge Frank Johnson, one of the few judges in Alabama sympathetic to the civil rights movement and who had previously issued the Williams v. Wallace injunction, found that the Klansmen participated in a KKK rally in protest of the that injunction on the day the protesters began walking from Selma. While the defendants were allowed to participate in the rally, the court found their participation to be highly relevant to the fact that they had notice of the injunction, and made it more likely that they had in fact conspired to oppose the march. Evidence further revealed that on March 25, after the march had concluded, the defendants drove from Montgomery to Selma, and in the process sought out protesters to harass.

The Klansmen appealed, but the Fifth Circuit (Judge Coleman) affirmed on April 27, 1967 (376 F.2d 552). Judge Coleman held that the evidence clearly supported a finding that the Klansmen intentionally conspired against the protesters. Further, he held that while a lot of evidence at trial focused on the Liuzzo shooting despite the Klansmen not being charged with murder, the evidence was nonetheless highly relevant to the presence of guilty intent need for the conspiracy charge.

Judge Coleman then addressed the DOJ's argument that the Klansmen were guilty of violating the Williams v. Wallace injunction, regardless of the fact that the injunction targeted state action. At issue was whether or not the Constitution protects the right to protest when it is violated by private, non-state, conduct. In other words, did 18 U.S.C. § 241 apply to private conduct not associated with state conduct? Judge Coleman found that the Klansmen's conduct was not associated with the state. He further found that regardless of state conduct, it was the national government that guaranteed these rights, and only the national government could allow exceptions to their exercise. Because the Williams v. Wallace injunction was directly concerned with the right to register to vote and the right to protest, any protesters participating in the Selma marches were exercising those constitutional rights. Thus, the court held, the conspiracy unlawfully deprived protesters of constitutional rights in violation of federal law.

The Klansmen sought cert in the Supreme Court but were denied.

The case is now closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.

Virginia Weeks - 04/14/2018

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Freedom of speech/association
Race discrimination
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff
Special Case Type
Causes of Action Criminal Conspiracy to Violate Federal Rights, 18 U.S.C. § 241
Defendant(s) Collie Wilkins
Eugene Thomas
William Eaton
Plaintiff Description Department of Justice
Indexed Lawyer Organizations U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Criminal Conviction
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 1965 - n/a
Filed 1965
Case Closing Year 1967
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
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  Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions
Date: 2018
By: Jim Turner
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
U.S. Court of Appeals
Brief for Appellee
FA-AL-0004-0002.pdf | Detail
Source: Papers of Owen Fiss
not recorded
FBI Statement: March From Selma to Montgomery, Alabama March 21-25, 1965
FA-AL-0004-0004.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
FA-AL-0004-0006.pdf | Detail
not recorded
The White House Statement by the President to the Press in the East Room
FA-AL-0004-0007.pdf | Detail
not recorded
FBI Statement: Murder of Viola Liuzzo Lowndes County, Alabama March 25, 1965
FA-AL-0004-0005.pdf | External Link | Detail
M.D. Ala.
Trial Exhibits
FA-AL-0004-0011.pdf | External Link | Detail
M.D. Ala.
[Grand Jury Charges]
FA-AL-0004-0012.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
Turner November 13, 1965 Memorandum
FA-AL-0004-0009.pdf | Detail
not recorded
FA-AL-0004-0008.pdf | Detail
M.D. Ala.
Transcript of Proceedings
FA-AL-0004-0010.pdf | Detail
U.S. Court of Appeals
Supplemental Memorandum for the United States
FA-AL-0004-0013.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
Whether the Supplemental Brief in Wilkins v. United States Should Argue that 241 Reaches Private Conspiracies to Interfere with Fourteenth Amendment Rights
FA-AL-0004-0001.pdf | Detail
Source: Papers of Owen Fiss
U.S. Court of Appeals
Opinion (376 F.2d 552)
FA-AL-0004-0003.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
show all people docs
Judges Coleman, James Plemon (Fifth Circuit) show/hide docs
Plaintiff's Lawyers Doar, John (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
FA-AL-0004-0001 | FA-AL-0004-0002 | FA-AL-0004-0013
Fiss, Owen M. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Hardeman, Ben (Alabama) show/hide docs
FA-AL-0004-0002 | FA-AL-0004-0012
Hirshen, Alvin (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Kauder, Louis (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
FA-AL-0004-0002 | FA-AL-0004-0013
Marer, Alan G. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
FA-AL-0004-0001 | FA-AL-0004-0013
Norman, David L. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
FA-AL-0004-0002 | FA-AL-0004-0013
Sentell, J. O. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs

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