[News] Ernest Withers reports went to COINTELPRO top command

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 22 22:00:28 EDT 2010

Ernest Withers’ reports on Martin Luther King went to COINTELPRO command

    * September 22nd, 2010 8:32 pm ET
    * By 
Richardson, COINTELPRO Examiner

The revelation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal 
that acclaimed photographer Ernest Withers was an 
informant on the civil rights movement to the 
Memphis office of the Federal Bureau of 
Investigation has put COINTELPRO back in the news.

Operation COINTELPRO was a vast, illegal and 
clandestine program ordered by FBI Director J. 
Edgar Hoover to “disrupt” political activity that 
Hoover felt undesirable.  Spanning a number of 
years and targeting thousands of individuals and 
groups nationwide, COINTELPRO came to dominate 
FBI priorities in the 1960’s as Hoover stepped up 
his own private war on American citizens engaged in political activity.

Hoover felt the growing black power movement was 
America’s most serious domestic threat and 
targeted its leaders including Martin Luther 
King.  Although King preached non-violence, 
King’s high profile made him a COINTELPRO target 
and the subject of close surveillance and counter-intelligence plots.

Withers’ reputation will forever be marred by his 
stint from 1968 to 1970 as a COINTELPRO informant 
and his new exposure as an extortionist and 
influence-peddler.  As a state employee Withers 
pled guilty to extortion of $8,500 from a bar 
owner.  Withers was also fired as a local 
policeman and narrowly escaped prosecution for 
attempting to arrange cash-for-freedom deals for prisoners.

Withers’ Beale Street photography studio put him 
in the center of Memphis black life and he became 
a human institution in the community.  Working 
the nightclubs after dark and his photo studio by 
day, Withers dropped everything else when a civil 
rights event needed recording.

Withers reported to the Memphis FBI agent in 
charge of local COINTELPRO duties, William 
Lawrence.  There is no evidence that Withers was 
aware of the secret COINTELPRO mandate or that he 
talked with anyone else higher in the FBI chain 
of command.  However, Withers’ reports were 
studied closely at the highest level in Washington, D.C.

Although J. Edgar Hoover commanded daily 
operations in FBI headquarters which he called 
the “Seat of Government” and read many of the 
reports sent to him from around the nation, 
Hoover’s initials are absent from Withers’ 
reports.  Instead, Hoover relied on a directorate 
to make summaries and brief him on developments 
in cities and groups he was interested in.

Two names that do appear on the secret 
COINTRELPRO reports from Memphis are William 
Sullivan and George Moore, who both show up on 
distribution lists and initialed or signed the 
reports indicating they had read and approved them.

Sullivan, long the third in command of the FBI, 
was chief architect of COINTELPRO while Moore 
headed the “Racial Intelligence” unit of 
COINTELPRO.  Both men despised King, as did 
Hoover, and they followed information supplied by Withers closely.

Hoover first ordered wiretaps and hidden 
microphones on King in the late 1950’s on the 
premise that King was a suspected Communist 
agent.  Hoover later ended the bugging of King 
when he became concerned of exposure.  Robert 
Kennedy, as Attorney General, ordered the next 
round of secret monitoring of King to keep tabs on the civil rights movement.

Sullivan, on his own initiative, would order a 
third round of eavesdropping on King in the 
mid-1960’s for political intelligence.  King’s “I 
Have A Dream” speech outraged Sullivan who wrote 
to Hoover that King was “demagogic”.

Sullivan advised Hoover, “We must mark [King] 
now, if we have not done so before, as the most 
dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation
may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have 
been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely 
conclusive evidence that would stand up in 
testimony in court or before Congressional Committees.”

In December of 1963 Sullivan convened a 
headquarters meeting of various FBI offices about 
the investigation of King.  Sullivan told the 
assembled agents that King was “unfit” and 
declared, “We must continue to keep close watch on King’s personal activities.”

After King was named “Man of the Year” by TIME 
magazine, Sullivan gave his own “trespass” order 
and arranged for the installation of microphones 
in King’s hotel rooms.  Sullivan began an 
aggressive bugging program sending FBI sound 
teams and “black-bag” experts around the country as King traveled.

Sullivan wrote a memo presaging the anonymous 
letter advising King to commit suicide he is also presumed to have authored.

“We will at the proper time when it can be done 
without embarrassment to the Bureau, expose King 
as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere 
person but is exploiting the racial situation for his own personal gain.”

During the time Withers was providing information 
to Lawrence, Moore and Sullivan were using the 
secret reports in their campaign against 
King--even after King’s 1968 
assassination.  Withers passed on information 
that he gleaned while attending King’s funeral.

In January 1969, Moore sent Sullivan a memo 
warning of a move to make King’s birthday a 
national holiday.  Moore urged Sullivan to have 
material ready from the hotel room tapes to play 
for the incoming Nixon administration in an 
effort to stop the new national holiday.

Sullivan passed on Moore’s suggestion to Hoover 
and on January 23, 1969, just three days in after 
Nixon’s inauguration, Hoover sent the Attorney 
General designee, John Mitchell, a Top Secret memo.

“In view of this [national holiday plans] there 
is enclosed a document regarding  the communist 
influence on King during his career and 
information regarding King’s highly immoral 
personal behavior.  For your information, a copy 
of this document is also being furnished to the President.”

Permission granted to reprint

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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