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Sun, 09.12.2010

Black Photographer Revealed as an Informant

Ernest C. Withers

*On this date in 2010, The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis published a story that Black photographer Ernest C. Withers was also an FBI informant.

This story resulted from a two-year investigation that showed that Withers had collaborated closely with two F.B.I. agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the American Civil Rights movement.  Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, had the trust of high-ranking civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  It was an astonishing revelation about a former police officer nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer. “It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette 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.”

According to numerous reports summarizing their meetings, from at least 1968 to 1970, Withers 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.  The newspaper obtained the reports under the Freedom of Information Act and posted them on its Web site.  A clerical error appears to have allowed for Mr. Withers’ 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. appeared to have forgotten to hide them. The F.B.I. said it was unclear what had caused the lapse in privacy and was looking into the incident.

The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s, said, “If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship.” Andrew Young, a civil rights organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta, said, “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.” Many details of Withers's relationship with the F.B.I. remain unknown. The bureau keeps files on all informers but has declined repeated requests to release Withers, which would presumably explain how much the F.B.I. paid him, how he was recruited, and how long he served as an informer.

Tony Decaneas, the owner of the Panopticon Gallery in Boston and the exclusive agent for Withers, said, at the time of his death, Withers had the largest catalog of any individual photographer covering the civil rights movement in the South.  His photographs have been collected in four books, and his family was planning to open a museum named after him. His photos show remarkable intimacy with and access to top civil rights leaders. But while he was growing close to top civil rights leaders, 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.

Historian David J. Garrow, who has written biographies of Dr. King, said many civil rights workers gave confidential interviews to the F.B.I. and C.I.A. and were automatically classified as “informants.” Garrow said the difference is evidence that Mr. Withers was being paid. Withers’ motivation is unknown, but Marc Perrusquia, who wrote the article for The Commercial Appeal, noted that Withers had eight children and might have struggled to support them.

Rosalind Withers, daughter of Ernest Withers, told local newspapers that she did not find the report conclusive.  “My father’s not here to defend himself. That is a very, very strong, strong accusation.” That photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin 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 F.B.I. informer.

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