By Boyce Watkins, PhD
ABOVE PHOTO: Nzinga Withers, 27, describes what she likes about her grandfather’s, Dr. Ernest C. Withers (Left), photos in the Ernest Withers Collection Gallery and Museum located on Beale Street in Downtown Memphis, Tenn. Withers’ family claim to not know anything of his alleged secret life working as an informant for the FBI.
(AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Alan Spearman)
If you don’t know the name Ernest Withers, I can guarantee that you know of his work. Remember the famous and horrible picture of Emmett Till? Withers took that one. Consider nearly every well-known picture of Dr. Martin Luther King you can remember. Well, Withers probably took that one too. Ernest Withers had access to Civil Rights leaders like no other.
He was also found to have been an informant for the FBI.
The Commercial Appeal in Memphis conducted a two-year investigation in to the life of Withers, who died in 2007. The investigation found that Withers allegedly worked with two FBI agents to keep an eye on the Civil Rights Movement. Withers was known to have been very close to Dr. King and to have had his trust.
“It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan Theoharis, a historian, told the New York Times. “It really speaks to the degree that the FBI was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well-trusted.”
Reports say that from 1968 to 1970, Withers provided photos and other detailed information to the FBI about the schedules and whereabouts of Civil Rights figures.
Withers’ identity was apparently released by accident.
In most of the FBI reports, references to Withers were blocked out, replaced by his informant number, ME 338-R, but on several occasions, agents forgot to remove his name.
The Appeal found FBI reports indicating that Withers collaborated for years with FBI agents monitoring the civil rights movement. Those FBI reports, the paper’s Marc Perrusquia writes, “reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer.”
Withers is certainly beloved in Memphis, where a namesake museum is scheduled to open next month. It remains to be seen how these new revelations may affect Withers’ legacy.
The Memphis paper reports how Withers’ spying assisted J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial FBI director who long covertly monitored King and others considered radicals. Withers, the paper notes, gave the bureau a “front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.” In the 1960s, he provided information on everyone from the Invaders — a militant black power group — to church leaders, politicians and business owners. Experts believe the FBI paid Withers for spying.
D’Army Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former activist once watched by the FBI, told the paper that such covert tactics are “something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes.”
Digging into the late Withers’ past wasn’t easy. The Commercial Appeal’s scoop proved to be the result of shoe-leather reporting, determination and a bit of luck.
The newspaper tried unsuccessfully to obtain Withers’ informant file, with the Justice Department rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests and refusing to acknowledge that such a file even exists. However, as Perrusquia writes, the government did release “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.”
And in those documents, the Commercial Appeal notes, the government inadvertently left a single reference to Withers’ informant number, which “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.” Withers had eight children before he died, and some speculate that this might have been the reason he chose to accept money from the FBI. If that’s the case, this would be a disturbing reminder of how our financial circumstances can ultimately impact our ability to be free. It might be presumptuous to think that Withers wanted to sell his friends out to the FBI, so I can only imagine that his financial situation played a role in his decision to undermine one of the most significant movements in African-American history.
The fact that Ernest Withers appears to have been an FBI informant not only rewrites quite a few history books, it also opens the door to another disturbing question: Who killed Dr. King and how did they know where he’d be at the time of his murder?
The fact that Withers “just happened” to be at the Lorraine Motel at the time of King’s death as well as the fact that he’d gained so much of Dr. King’s trust, makes us only contemplate the unthinkable.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy.
Yahoo News contributed to this story