[News] Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 14 10:22:03 EDT 2010

Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI 
informant to spy on civil rights movement

He provided agency with insider's view of volatile period

By Marc Perrusquia

Sunday, September 12, 2010

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.

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

He later 
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 
Withers only by his confidential informant number 
338-R -- is among numerous reports reviewed by 
The Commercial Appeal that reveal a covert, 
previously unknown side of the beloved 
photographer who 
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 
Patterson (then a pastor with a popular radio 
show), real estate agent 
Pickett, politician O. Z. Evers and others 
plumped FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on militancy.

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

Each report has a common thread -- Withers.

As a so-called 
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 
Patrick Catholic Church priests who supported the 
city's striking sanitation workers; 
monitored political candidates, 
down auto tag numbers for agents, and once 
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.

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, 
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.

Responding to the newspaper's requests, the 
government instead released 369 pages related to 
a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted 
Withers -- by then a state employee who was 
taking payoffs -- carefully redacting references 
to informants -- with one notable exception.

overlooked a single reference to Withers' 
informant number. That number, in turn, unlocked 
the secret of the photographer's 1960s political 
spying when the newspaper located repeated 
references to the number in other FBI reports 
released under FOIA 30 years ago. Those reports 
-- more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI's 
files on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 
probe of the Invaders -- at times pinpoint 
specific actions by Withers and in other 
instances show he was one of several informants contributing details.

Witness accounts and Withers' own photos provided 
further corroborating details.

"This is the first time I've heard of this in my 
life,'' said daughter Rosalind Withers, trustee 
of her father's photo collection, who said she 
wants to see documentation before commenting at length.

"My father's not here to defend himself. That is 
a very, very, strong, strong accusation. "

A son, Rome Withers, who runs his own Memphis 
photography business, said he, too, was unaware 
of his father's secret FBI work, but doesn't 
believe it diminishes his courageous work 
documenting the civil rights movement.

"He had been harassed, beaten, shot at. He was a 
victim'' who often faced hostile mobs and violent 
police forces. "At that time, when you are the 
only black on the scene, you're in an intimidating state.''

Andrew Young, now 78, said he isn't bothered that 
Withers secretly worked as an informant while snapping civil rights history.

"I always liked him because he was a good 
photographer. And he was always (around)," he 
said. Young viewed Withers as an important 
publicity tool because his work often appeared in 
Jet magazine and other high-profile publications. 
The movement was transparent and didn't have anything to hide anyway, he said.

"I don't think Dr. King would have minded him 
making a little money on the side.''

* * *

There was a time in 1968 and 1969 when Lance 
"Sweet Willie Wine'' Watson was considered the 
most dangerous man in Memphis. As "prime 
minister'' of the Invaders, a self-styled 
militant organization whose rhetoric included 
overthrowing the government, Watson frightened 
black and white Memphians alike. The FBI assembled a huge file on him.

Today, Watson, who goes by the name Suhkara 
Yahweh, is more conciliatory. He runs a community 
development organization in his impoverished 
South Memphis neighborhood and ministers to youths and the needy.

Still, he decorates his living room with 
mementos: A bumper sticker reading "Damn the 
Army, Join the Invaders''; a glass case 
containing a military-styled jacket with 
"Invaders'' emblazoned on the back; and a 
portrait of Ernest Withers displayed prominently over his fireplace.

"That's my daddy,'' Yahweh, 71, said one 
afternoon last winter, relating how Withers often gave him money and advice.

"If he was (an informant) I don't know anything 
about it ... He would call me his son. Right now, 
I'm still part of the family. I talked to Rome 
(son Andrew Jerome Withers) just the other day. I 
talked to (Ernest) on his death bed.''

It's a testament to the FBI's effectiveness that 
the dreaded "Willie Wine'' had no clue that 
Withers was constantly informing on him.

was in Atlanta possibly to "con'' money out of 
the SCLC, reports indicate the informant told 
agents. He reported Wine's girlfriend was 
pregnant; that Wine was a thief. That 
and his cohorts had cat-called voting rights 
activist Fannie Lou Hamer at a gathering at old Club Paradise.

As informant ME 338-R, 
had plenty to tell the FBI in November 1968 when 
Willie Wine and others seized the administration 
building at LeMoyne-Owen College. What started as 
a dispute over student grievances escalated into 
rebellion when student leaders called in the 
Invaders and the local chapter of the radical 
anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society.

Withers, who shot pictures of the crisis for Jet 
and was seen by newsmen going into Brown Lee Hall 
the night of the takeover, told FBI agents that 
Wine planned and directed the operation.

338-R said the building was held "in a state of 
siege'' with school president Hollis Price 
inside, according to a Nov. 27, 1968, FBI report. 
Although local news accounts made no mention of 
weapons, the informant said occupants "definitely 
had a single-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, a rifle 
with a telescopic sight, a bayonet, at least one 
Derringer, and one pistol'' -- details confirmed 
by another FBI source that night and Willie Wine 42 years later.

"I carried a .25-caliber pistol,'' the 
ex-militant recalled. The only time he used his 
gun that night was when another Invader rifled 
through an administrator's cabinet. "I pulled out 
my pistol. I said we're not here for that purpose,'' he said.

No charges were filed after officials at the 
private school chose not to prosecute.

Over time, however, the FBI would break the 
Invaders. Utilizing tips from Withers and other 
informants plus three undercover Memphis police 
officers who had infiltrated the group, 
prosecuted as many as 34 Invaders on charges 
ranging from petty street crime to arson and the 
sniper wounding of a police officer.

Although one undercover cop was famously exposed, 
the Invaders seemed to have little clue about 
Withers, who often visited the group's 
headquarters on Vance and shot publicity photos for them.

"Ernest, he was a dear friend," said Charles 
Cabbage, who founded the Invaders in 1967. Like 
Wine, Cabbage kept a memento on the wall, a 
picture Withers took in 1968 of Cabbage as a radical.

"Anytime he'd see us, he'd start snapping," 
Cabbage recalled. Cabbage, interviewed last 
winter, four months before his death in June at 
age 66, said he'd come to wonder what Withers was really doing.

"C'mon man. We weren't that interesting. Why 
would he take our pictures constantly?"

As the FBI cast its net, it encountered a range 
of people whose beliefs and personal details 
landed in the bureau's spy files despite little 
more than a tangential connection to the Invaders.

An Aug. 7, 1969, report shows the 
collected 14 photographs of Father Charles 
Mahoney of St. Patrick Catholic Church. Notations 
on the report, along with other corroborating 
details, indicate Withers shot the photos and 
handed them over to agents. The report quotes the 
informant as saying Mahoney "is a close friend'' 
of Invaders defense minister Melvin Smith and 
notes that Mahoney and two other priests allowed 
the Invaders to use church facilities.

"The FBI was off base on the civil rights 
thing,'' one of those priests, Charles Martin, 
said in a recent interview. An urban outreach 
ministry brought St. Patrick in regular contact 
with the Invaders. And when the priests there 
openly supported the sanitation strike, there was a backlash, Martin said.

"We were for the workers, the sanitation workers. 
And a lot of people in the town didn't like us for that.''

* * *

The Rev. James M. Lawson came into the FBI's 
focus in early 1968 during the height of the 
sanitation strike. It was Lawson, then pastor at 
Centenary Methodist, who invited Dr. King to 
Memphis, where he spoke in support of 1,100 
sanitation workers who had walked off the job to 
protest low pay and horrid working conditions 
that led to the deaths of two men.

"If one black person is down, we are all down!'' 
King told 15,000 cheering people at Mason Temple the night of March 18, 1968.

Near the speaker's podium, the ubiquitous Withers 
snapped photos. Images he shot that night would 
stand as timeless icons of the strike alongside 
those he took of marching sanitation workers 
carrying "I Am A Man'' placards and National 
Guard troops policing Downtown streets.

But the stout photographer with a chatty 
personality and quick smile had another, 
nonpublic, appointment that day, a secret meeting 
in which the topic was his friend, Rev. Lawson.

Earlier that afternoon, Withers met with FBI 
agents Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, who 
ran the bureau's Memphis domestic surveillance 
program. A report summarizing the meeting 
ME 338-R handed over a newsletter listing names 
and photographs of community leaders behind the 
strike -- a virtual directory of strike-support 
organizers -- and told agents who produced it.

"Informant pointed out that the paper is printed 
or laid out by Rev. Malcolm D. Blackburn ... 
pastor of Clayborn AME Temple ... The main 
editorial work therein is done by Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.,'' the report said.

had a lot to say about Lawson, a veteran civil 
rights leader and friend who marched during the 
strike alongside Withers' wife, Dorothy, and his daughter, Rosalind.

portrayed Lawson as the type of left-leaning 
radical the government had come to fear -- active 
in the anti-war movement, involved with the 
feared Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee 
and someone who was planning a trip to the East Bloc nation of Czechoslovakia.

"I'm not surprised,'' Lawson, now 81, said this 
month when told of Withers' informant work. 
Lawson said "the police and FBI were very clever 
about entrapping'' blacks and making them informants.

"Any activity in the black community, Ernie was 
going to be around,'' Lawson said. "It was 
probably done innocently: 'You just tell us 
what's going on and what you see and you get paid for it.' ''

Lawson's was one of many biographies the informant would flesh out for agents.

Reports linked to Withers show he was a font of 
information for the FBI during the strike, 
handing over documents, providing details from 
strategy meetings, connecting dots between pastors and suspected militants.

The informant told agents on March 6 that young 
militants -- Cabbage among them -- passed out 
literature at a rally at Clayborn Temple with 
instructions for making Molotov cocktail 
firebombs. Mainstream leaders "did nothing'' to stop them, the report said.

On April 3, the day before King's murder, the 
informant passed on 
about a high-level strategy session at the 
Lorraine between Cabbage and King, who 
begrudgingly decided to give the young militants a role in the strike.

Well into the summer, after the strike was 
settled, ME 338-R continued to report on its 
impact. That July 26, 
informant gave FBI agents a financial report 
showing the strike-leadership group, Community on 
the Move for Equality, had spent $2,600 of 
$347,000 raised for striking workers to pay 
attorney's fees and expenses for members of the 
militant Black Organizing Project, an umbrella group encompassing the Invaders.

As Hoover cranked up his campaign against "black 
nationalist hate groups,'' anyone giving aid -- 
money, jobs, political support -- could fall into 
the crosshairs of COINTELPRO, the FBI's dirty tricks campaign.

The FBI had been spying on the civil rights 
movement for years, but in an August 1967 memo, 
backed by a more thorough order the following 
March, the bureau directed Memphis and other 
field offices to begin efforts to "to expose, 
disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise 
neutralize" a range of civil rights leaders and 
organizations, from the separatist Nation of Islam to King's moderate SCLC.

In May 1968 a similar initiative was launched 
against the so-called "New Left,'' targeting 
Vietnam War protesters and socialists, among others.

A U.S. Senate investigation in 1975 found 
widespread abuse in the program, which lacked 
statutory or executive approval. COINTELPRO 
techniques ranged from contacting an employer to 
get a target fired to mailing an anonymous letter 
to a spouse alleging infidelity, leaking 
humiliating information to the press, encouraging 
street warfare between violent groups and 
alerting state and local authorities to a target's criminal law violations.

Available records provide few details on specific 
COINTELPRO actions taken in Memphis. Yet, records 
indicate Withers fed agents plenty of raw material.

schoolteacher loaned militant Cabbage his car, 
the informant said. 
L. Campbell, a supposed black-power sympathizer, 
was running for the county Democratic Party's 
executive committee. Real estate agent 
Pickett, who'd brought food to the Invaders 
during the LeMoyne takeover, was thinking of 
running for Congress. 
Malcolm Blackburn and activist Baxton Bryant were 
trying to find jobs for the Invaders.

A May 13, 1968, report indicates 
gave the FBI two photos of Rosetta Miller, a 
field worker for the U.S. Civil Rights 
Commission, telling an agent she is "one who will 
give aid and comfort to the black power groups." 
Following up that fall, an agent typed a 
two-sentence report memorializing a rumor that 
Miller had recently married, noting the marriage 
broke up after just a week. The report was copied to Withers' informant file.

Interviewed this spring, Miller, who now lives in 
Nashville, said her job with the commission came 
into jeopardy in 1968 when supervisors questioned her about ties to radicals.

"I was never part of that crap," she said.

Marquette's Theoharis, who worked with the Senate 
committee that exposed many of the FBI's abuses, 
said employment sabotage was a particularly insidious COINTELPRO tactic.

"Once, (the FBI) got someone dismissed as a Girl 
Scout leader. It was crazy," he said.

Records reviewed by the newspaper offered few 
details of the secretive COINTELPRO initiative. 
Yet, frustrated by continuing support for the 
Invaders, the 
clearly was considering such actions in May 1969 
against the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"All sources have been alerted to attempt to 
pinpoint any actual proof that employees of the 
AME Church are giving financial support to the 
Invaders," said a May 8, 1969, report to headquarters in Washington.

"...If such proof is forthcoming separate 
communication will be written to the Bureau 
concerning any possible counterintelligence 
action which might be instituted with certain AME 
high church officials in this regard.''

* * *

Available files don't indicate how or when Withers first teamed with the FBI.

But it would have been hard for the bureau to have overlooked him.

Withers served as a city police officer, hired in 
1948 along with eight other African Americans who 
composed MPD's first black recruit class. He 
didn't last long. He was fired in 1951 for taking kickbacks from a bootlegger.

By the early 1950s, Withers was making a name for 
himself on Beale Street, where he had operated 
since the mid-40s, chronicling the teeming night 
life and the everyday life of black Memphis. By 
night, he hung with bluesmen like B.B. King, 
Bobby "Blue'' Bland, Junior Parker and Rufus 
Thomas and, by day, he shot family portraits, 
weddings, church socials, political gatherings 
and sporting events, assembling one of the great 
Negro League baseball portfolios.

"He knew everybody," recalled Coby Smith, a 
political activist who founded the Invaders with 
Cabbage and who would come to form his own suspicions.

Across the street from Withers' studio, attorney 
H.T. Lockard ran a law office. When Lockard 
became president of the Memphis branch of the 
NAACP in 1955, a visitor started coming by -- Bill Lawrence of the FBI.

In an interview for this story, Lockard, now a 
90-year-old retired judge, spoke for the first 
time about his three-year association with 
Lawrence, a bespectacled G-man who came to 
Memphis in 1945 and ran the bureau's local 
domestic intelligence operations in the 1950s and 
'60s. In the '50s, as the Red scare was at its 
peak, the FBI kept close watch on the NAACP and 
other civil rights organizations believed 
susceptible to communist infiltration.

"Because of the nature of the work I was doing, 
there was a suspicious feeling that I was either 
a communist or a communist sympathizer," Lockard said.

Like so many others recruited by the FBI, Lockard 
said agent Lawrence showed up uninvited and made 
regular unannounced visits to his law office with 
no evident purpose. "One stock question was how was I getting along,'' he said.

Over a period, the agent asked if a certain 
suspected communist had joined the local NAACP. 
Eventually, the man named by Lawrence applied for 
membership. Lockard said he declined to enroll him.

It's unclear if the FBI considered Lockard an 
informant. He said he was never paid. The FBI 
visits stopped in 1957, when Lockard left the 
NAACP helm, yet he said he developed "an amiable 
camaraderie'' with Lawrence that included 
exchanging Christmas cards for years after the 
agent retired in 1970. Lawrence died in 1990.

Around the time Lawrence began calling on 
Lockard, Withers began his long and remarkable 
career chronicling the civil rights movement.

In 1955, Withers covered the murder of Emmett 
Till, a 14-year-old African American who was 
beaten, shot and tossed in a river in Money, 
Miss., for whistling at a white woman.

The injustice of the crime -- the defendants, 
both white, were acquitted by an all-white jury 
yet later confessed in a paid magazine interview 
-- built the foundation of Withers' fame. Defying 
a judge's order that banned picture-taking during 
the trial, Withers captured the moment Till's 
great-uncle Mose Wright stood up at the witness 
stand and pointed an accusing finger at the killers.

The Till case helped galvanize the movement, and 
Withers soon had a wide array of assignments covering civil rights.

As a freelancer for the Sengstacke family, 
publishers of the Chicago Defender and the 
Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Withers covered 
many of the seminal events of the era. He was 
beaten by police covering Medgar Evers' 1963 
funeral and harassed in small-town Mississippi 
following the 1964 murders of three Freedom 
Summer activists in Neshoba County. He snapped 
pictures of King and Abernathy riding the first 
integrated bus in Montgomery in 1956 and 
photographed King in 1966 casually reclining in 
his room at the Lorraine where he would die two years later.

Trained in photography in the Army during World 
War II and equipped with a bulky twin reflex 
camera, Withers lacked technical skill yet 
managed to take profoundly powerful images, 
largely through his resourcefulness and unusual access.

Locally, Withers chronicled all the significant 
events, the Tent City voter registration drive in 
Fayette County, the desegregation of Memphis City 
Schools and the Downtown sit-ins of 1960.

It was around then that the FBI's Lawrence began 
showing up at the NAACP offices, recalls Maxine 
Smith, the organization's longtime executive director in Memphis.

"We thought it was for our protection. We had 
nothing to hide,'' Smith said. "Somewhere along 
the line we began to suspect'' differently, she said.

What Smith and others didn't know was that by 
1963 the FBI had begun wiretapping King, 
initially because of the civil rights leader's 
ties to adviser Stanley Levison, a suspected 
communist. The FBI tapped King's phones, bugged 
his hotel rooms and, in one infamous episode, 
mailed surreptitious audio recordings including a 
taped sexual liaison to his Atlanta home along 
with a letter suggesting he commit suicide.

By 1967, as more-militant wings spun out of the 
movement, the FBI launched a "ghetto informant 
program'' recruiting "listening posts'' within 
the black community, many of them white 
shopkeepers and businessmen. Increasingly, 
headquarters pushed agents like Lawrence to 
develop information from black leaders.

"He used to come out here a whole lot, right 
here,'' Smith said in the living room of her 
South Parkway home. Smith told how Lawrence, a 
music lover, fostered a relationship through her 
late husband Vasco Smith's expansive jazz 
a 1981 book revealed the couple's relationship to 
the FBI, the Smiths sued -- and lost. Still 
passionate about the issue, Smith argues she and her husband were never paid.

"Nobody has ever offered Vasco or me one penny. 
No one dare say that,'' she said.

Benjamin Hooks, the former national NAACP director, agreed with her assessment.

"I don't know if anyone is trying to say they 
were snitches. If that's what they're saying that 
is a lie," Hooks said in January, 11 weeks before 
he died. "You couldn't stop the FBI from coming 
and talking to you. If you did, they'd make it up 
anyway. They were talking to Maxine and Vasco and Hooks all the time.''

When details of the FBI's domestic spy program 
later leaked in congressional hearings, officials 
said there were just five paid racial informants 
working in Memphis in 1968. Officials have never 
disclosed the identities of those informants; 
it's unknown if Withers was included in that group.

"I'd like to know who those devils are," Smith said.

* * *

Perhaps the last man with firsthand knowledge of 
Withers' covert life, retired FBI agent Howell 
Lowe, opted to take his secrets to the grave.

"I won't have my name connected with this," Lowe 
told a reporter last year, rejecting an interview 
for this story. He died Jan. 1 at age 83. 
Although Withers had died two years earlier, Lowe 
said he feared that discussing the photographer's 
informant work might harm his survivors.

"Some of the things we did were sleazy. We were 
fighting what we thought was the possibility of 
uprising in this country,'' Lowe said.

Lost, too, to history are Withers' motives. A 
federal source who first told a reporter about 
the photographer's secret life several years ago 
said Withers, who raised eight children and 
struggled financially, had a primary motive -- money.

That same source said Withers' secret informant 
status came dangerously close to exposure in 1978 
when Congress re-examined the FBI's investigation 
of King's assassination. At the time, revelations 
about COINTELPRO and the FBI's treatment of King 
caused many Americans to wonder if Hoover's 
hatred of the civil rights leader somehow morphed 
into an assassination plot. The U.S. House Select 
Committee on Assassinations eventually found the 
FBI had nothing to do with the murder.

Yet, with the FBI's Memphis office on trial, 
Lowe's partner, agent Lawrence, testified before 
the committee on Nov. 21, 1978, speaking of a 
valued informant who "provided information on 
racial matters generally and the Invaders in 
particular." The informant, paid up to $200 a 
month, helped track King in the days before his murder.

Lawrence said he frequently gave his informant 
instructions ahead of time, giving him names and 
topics to look out for and conferring almost 
daily with him during the sanitation strike.

"I would call him if I had occasion to alert him 
to something,'' Lawrence testified. "Otherwise, I 
would hope that he would call me, which he 
frequently did. Then periodically we would meet 
in person under what we hoped were safe 
conditions to personally exchange information, go 
over descriptions, any photographs, things of that nature.''

Was Lawrence discussing Withers? The 
congressional record is unclear. Nonetheless, as 
an FBI informant with a symbol number and a large 
volume of assignments, Withers would have been 
handled in a similar fashion, experts said.

"These are individuals who are going to be 
directed and paid... They saw you as a valuable 
source and a continuing source,'' said Theoharis, 
the retired Marquette professor.

Researchers who study the government informant 
system say patriotism, desire to do police work, 
thrill-seeking and money often are motivating 
factors. Withers had served in the Army in World 
War II. In addition to serving briefly as a 
police officer, he ran successfully for Shelby 
County constable in 1974 and later was appointed 
a gun-carrying agent of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverages Commission.

Withers' legal troubles also can't be discounted 
as a possible motive. Withers would claim late in 
life he was set up in the 1951 kickback incident 
while working for MPD, yet his police personnel 
file contains transcripts that reveal admissions 
by Withers and detailed witness accounts 
supporting the allegations. He was fired but never charged criminally.

Years later, in 1979, he faced similar charges, 
this time in federal criminal court. Then-ABC 
agent Withers pleaded guilty to extorting kickbacks from a nightclub owner.

Regardless of his motives, the revelation of 
Withers' FBI work doesn't harm his memory for some who knew him.

"It does not alter who he was a person,'' said 
ex-Invader Coby Smith. "He did so many more 
things. That wasn't a fulltime thing to be an informant for them.''

Rev. Lawson agreed. "It won't tarnish his memory for his family and friends.''

-- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545

Civil Rights Photographer Unmasked as Informer



ATLANTA ­ That photo of the Rev. Dr. 
Luther King, Jr. riding one of the first 
desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala.? He took 
it. The well-known image of black sanitation 
workers carrying “I Am a Man” signs in Memphis? 
His. He was the only photojournalist to document 
the entire trial in the murder of Emmett Till, 
and he was there in Room 306 of the Lorraine 
Hotel, Dr. King’s room, on the night he was assassinated.

But now an unsettling asterisk must be added to 
the legacy of Ernest C. Withers, one of the most 
celebrated photographers of the civil rights era: 
He was a paid 

On Sunday, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis 
the results of a two-year investigation that 
showed Mr. Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, 
had collaborated closely with two F.B.I. agents 
in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights 
movement. It was an astonishing revelation about 
a former police officer nicknamed the Original 
Civil Rights Photographer, whose previous claim 
to fame had been the trust he engendered among 
high-ranking civil rights leaders, including Dr. King.

“It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan 
Theoharis, a historian at 
University who has written books about the F.B.I. 
“It really speaks to the degree that the F.B.I. 
was able to engage individuals within the civil 
rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

 From at least 1968 to 1970, Mr. Withers, who was 
black, provided photographs, biographical 
information and scheduling details to two F.B.I. 
agents in the bureau’s Memphis domestic 
surveillance program, Howell Lowe and William H. 
Lawrence, according to numerous reports 
summarizing their meetings. The reports were 
obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of 
Information Act and posted on its Web site.

A clerical error appears to have allowed for Mr. 
Withers’s identity to be divulged: In most cases 
in the reports, references to Mr. Withers and his 
informer number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. 
But in several locations, the F.B.I. appears to 
have forgotten to hide them. The F.B.I. said 
Monday that it was not clear what had caused the 
lapse in privacy and was looking into the incident.

Civil rights leaders have responded to the 
revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and 
disbelief. “If this is true, then Ernie abused 
our friendship,” said the Rev. James M. Lawson 
Jr., a retired minister who organized civil 
rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Others were more forgiving. “It’s not 
surprising,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights 
organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta. “We 
knew that everything we did was bugged, although 
we didn’t suspect Withers individually.”

Many details of Mr. Withers’s relationship with 
the F.B.I. remain unknown. The bureau keeps files 
on all informers, but has declined repeated 
requests to release Mr. Withers’s, which would 
presumably explain how much he was paid by the 
F.B.I., how he was recruited and how long he served as an informer.

At the time of his death, Mr. Withers had the 
largest catalog of any individual photographer 
covering the civil rights movement in the South, 
said Tony Decaneas, the owner of the Panopticon 
Gallery in Boston, the exclusive agent for Mr. 
Withers. His photographs have been collected in 
four books, and his family was planning to open a museum, named after him.

His work shows remarkable intimacy with and 
access to top civil rights leaders. Friends used 
to say he had a knack for being in the right 
place at the right time. But while he was growing 
close to top civil rights leaders, Mr. Withers 
was also meeting regularly with the F.B.I. 
agents, disclosing details about plans for 
marches and political beliefs of the leaders, 
even personal information like the leaders’ car tag numbers.

David J. Garrow, a 
Prize-winning historian who has written 
biographies of Dr. King, said many civil rights 
workers gave confidential interviews to the 
F.B.I. and 
and were automatically classified as 
“informants.” The difference, Mr. Garrow said, is 
the evidence that Mr. Withers was being paid.

Although Mr. Withers’s motivation is not known, 
Mr. Garrow said informers were rarely motivated 
by the financial compensation, which “wasn’t 
enough money to live on.” But Marc Perrusquia, 
who wrote the article for The Commercial Appeal, 
noted that Mr. Withers had eight children and 
might have struggled to support them.

The children of Mr. Withers did not respond to 
requests for comment. But one daughter, Rosalind 
Withers, told local news organizations that she 
did not find the report conclusive.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this in my 
life,” Ms. Withers told The Commercial Appeal. 
“My father’s not here to defend himself. That is 
a very, very strong, strong accusation.”

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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