[News] Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement
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
agents about a meeting the civil rights leader
had with suspected black militants.
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
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
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
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
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. Kings 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 bureaus 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.
Witherss 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. Its 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 didnt suspect Withers individually.
Many details of Mr. Witherss relationship with
the F.B.I. remain unknown. The bureau keeps files
on all informers, but has declined repeated
requests to release Mr. Witherss, 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
and were automatically classified as
informants. The difference, Mr. Garrow said, is
the evidence that Mr. Withers was being paid.
Although Mr. Witherss motivation is not known,
Mr. Garrow said informers were rarely motivated
by the financial compensation, which wasnt
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 Ive heard of this in my
life, Ms. Withers told The Commercial Appeal.
My fathers not here to defend himself. That is
a very, very strong, strong accusation.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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