Ernest Withers: A man hiding a secret life and identity

Revered MLK photographer undermined a sacred trust

Gregg Reese OW Contributor | 1/11/2019, midnight
His images defined an era. A stoic Black man defiantly pointing his finger at the men...

His images defined an era. A stoic Black man defiantly pointing his finger at the men who abducted his great-nephew Emmett Till, on the night the 14-year-old was murdered near Mississippi’s Tallahatchie

River. A wall of determined protesters holding placards declaring “I am a Man.” A youthful singer named Elvis Presley defying segregation to visit the musical bastion of Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints, and Baptist churches to sample the blues and gospel traditions that ushered in rock and roll.

Ernest C. Withers paid dearly for many of these photos. At the forefront of the Civil Rights era, he endured police dogs, beatings, and the possibility of death, along with the other intrepid freedom marchers.

Along the way, he became a friend and confidant of the principal figure in the movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This vantage point allowed him access to capture the minister at his most iconic, addressing a crowd at the Washington Monument, and candid shots relaxing in an endless series of hotel rooms.

Years later, after the dust of the social upheaval of the 20th Century partially cleared, these accomplishments of recorded history were tarnished by the revelation that this chronicler of the crusade for justice was a pawn of the status quo.

A pawn of the status quo

Investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia became aware of Withers' secret life during the 1997 push for a new trial for James Earl Ray, the man originally convicted of murdering King on April 4, 1968. In the process, he made the acquaintance of a retired government operative named “Jim,” who (on condition of anonymity) revealed that Withers had previously been a paid C.I. (Covert Informant).

Withers’ actual “handler” was FBI Special Agent and Memphis native William H. Lawrence. The two men struck up a friendship of sorts in those times of racial separation, with Withers even visiting the Lawrence home to compose a family portrait. Starting in the 1950s, and accelerating by 1961 through 1967, Withers’ position as a photographer and intimate of the leading figures in the push for equality made him an ideal conduit, as the FBI and other entities tracked the movement for communists, subversives, and anyone who might tip the direction of peaceful protest towards violence.

Dogged research led to the release of (formerly) classified documents under the Freedom of Information Act. These materials are generally made available by the government with great reluctance, and even then are heavily “redacted” (a form of editing in which sensitive information is covered by black rectangles). As is common with government paperwork, sloppy clerical errors result in the revelation of information meant to be “sanitized” or concealed from those not cleared to view the material.

Perrusquia was able to confirm that Ernest Withers was Informant ME 338-R (“ME” designating the city of Memphis, and the “R” at the end signifying Racial elements in those ethnically volatile times).

Strange bedfellows: FBI and Black media

To understand Withers’ choices, one must understand the conditions he came up in and the political climate. Other notables forged relationships of a kind with the government as a matter of furthering the cause. Simeon Booker, the celebrated head of Ebony and Jet magazines (who worked with Withers to bring the story of Emmett Till to the masses) regularly informed the FBI when ever he traveled to the South to garner protection in that hostile environ. He developed a close bond with the FBI’s Deputy Associate Director, Cartha Dekle “Deke” DeLoach, and number three in the bureau hierarchy. He famously declared “Jet and Ebony never would have been what we were without the FBI.”