Trusted Civil Rights Photographer Spied for FBI

ernest-withers
  • By Marc Perrusquia
  • Memphis Commercial Appeal

Source documents

Follow the in-text links in the story to original source documents obtained from the FBI and annotated by The Commercial Appeal.

At the top of the stairs he saw the blood, a large pool of it, splashed across the balcony like a grisly, abstract painting. Instinctively, Ernest Withers raised his camera. This wasn’t just a murder. This was history.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here a few hours earlier chatting with aides when a sniper squeezed off a shot from a hunting rifle.
Now, as night set over Memphis, Withers was on the story.
Slipping past a police barricade, the enterprising Beale Street newsman made his way to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel — King’s room — and walked in. Ralph Abernathy and the others hardly blinked. After all, this was Ernest C. Withers. He’d marched with King, and sat in on some of the movement’s sensitive strategy meetings.
A veteran freelancer for America’s black press, Withers was known as “the original civil rights photographer,” an insider who’d covered it all, from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.
As other journalists languished in the Lorraine courtyard, Withers’ camera captured the scene:
Bernard Lee, tie undone, looking weary yet fiery.
Andrew Young raising his palm to keep order.
Ben Hooks and Harold Middlebrook gazing pensively as King’s briefcase sits nearby, opened, as if awaiting his return.
The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they invited in that night was an FBI informant — evidence of how far the agency went to spy on private citizens in Memphis during one of the nation’s most volatile periods.

Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants.

He later divulged details gleaned at King’s funeral in Atlanta, reporting that two Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers blamed for an earlier Beale Street riot planned to return to Memphis “to resume … support of sanitation strike” — to stir up more trouble, as the FBI saw it.

The April 10, 1968, report, which identifies Withers only by his confidential informant numberME 338-R — is among numerous reports reviewed by The Commercial Appeal that reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer who died in 2007 at age 85.

Those reports portray Withers as a prolific informant who, from at least 1968 until 1970, passed on tips and photographs detailing an insider’s view of politics, business and everyday life in Memphis’ black community.
As a foot soldier in J. Edgar Hoover’s domestic intelligence program, Withers helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.
Much of his undercover work helped the FBI break up the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled militant group that became popular in disaffected black Memphis in the late 1960s and was feared by city leaders.
Yet, Withers focused on mainstream Memphians as well.

Personal and professional details of Church of God in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson (then a pastor with a popular radio show), real estate agent O.W. Pickett, politician O. Z. Evers and others plumped FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on militancy.

When community leader Jerry Fanion took cigarettes to jailed Invaders, agents took note. Agents wrote reports when Catholic Father Charles Mahoney befriended an Invader, when car dealer John T. Fisher offered jobs to militants, when Rev. James Lawson planned a trip to Czechoslovakia and when a schoolteacher loaned his car to a suspected radical.

Each report has a common thread — Withers.

As a so-called racial informant — one who monitored race-related politics and “hate” organizations — Withers fed agents a steady flow of information.

Records indicate he snapped and handed over photos of St. Patrick Catholic Church priests who supported the city’s striking sanitation workers; he monitored political candidates, jotted down auto tag numbers for agents, and once turned over a picture of an employee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said to be “one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.” In an interview this year, that worker said she came within a hearing of losing her job.

“It’s something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes,” said D’Army Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former activist who came under FBI scrutiny in the ’60s. The spying touched a nerve in black America and created mistrust that many still struggle with 40 years later.
“Once that trust is shattered that doesn’t go away,” Bailey said.

Photo by © Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, Boston, Mass.

Unparalleled access: Withers photographed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in 1966 after King flew to Memphis to participate in the James Meredith March Against Fear. Activist Meredith had been shot and wounded as he walked along a Mississippi highway to encourage black voter registration. (© Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, Boston, Mass.)

In addition to spying on citizens, Hoover’s FBI ran a covert operation, called COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence or “dirty tricks” program that attempted to disrupt radical movements. It did this with tactics such as leaking embarrassing details to the news media, targeting individuals with radical views for prosecution or trying to get them fired from jobs. First launched in the 1950s to fight communism, by 1967 it was aimed at a range of civil rights leaders and organizations deemed to be threats to national security. Congressional inquiries later exposed it for widespread abuse of personal and political freedoms, including a fierce campaign against King.
Yet much of the detail of the FBI’s domestic spying, including the inner workings of its informant network in Memphis, remain untold. Tracing Withers’ steps through thousands of pages of federal records reveals substantial new details about the extent of the FBI’s surveillance of private citizens.
In Withers, who ran a popular Beale Street photography studio frequented by the powerful and ordinary alike, the FBI found a super-informant, one who, according to an FBI report, proved “most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community.”
“He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper’s findings.

Many political informants from the civil rights era were unwitting, unpaid dupes. Yet Withers, who was assigned a racial informant number and produced a large volume of confidential reports, fits the profile of a closely supervised, paid informant, experts say.

“It would be shocking to me that he wasn’t paid,” said Theoharis, author of the books “Spying on Americans” and “The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition”.
“Once you get to this level if you’re a criminal informant versus a source of information they’re at a higher level. They’re controlled. They’re supervised,” said Theoharis, who discerns a valuable lesson in the revelation of Withers’ political spying.
“It speaks to the problem of secrecy. The government is able to do things in the shadows that are really questionable. That goes to the heart of our (democratic) society.”
It’s uncertain what impact the revelation will have on Withers’ legacy. The photographer was lionized in the final years of his life. Four books of his photography were published, exhibits of his work made international tours and a building on Beale Street was named for him. Congressman Steve Cohen proposed a yet-unfunded $396,000 earmark for a museum, set to open next month, to preserve Withers’ archives.
Yet, even 40 years after the fact, the FBI still aggressively guards the secret of Withers’ activities. The one record that would pinpoint the breadth and detail of his undercover work — his informant file — remains sealed. The Justice Department has twice rejected the newspaper’s Freedom of Information requests to copy that file, and won’t even acknowledge the file exists.

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editor has written 79 articles for Muhammad Speaks

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