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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...

Julian Bond and Andrew Young similarly developed mutually beneficial relationships with the feds for security purposes. This involved giving them advanced notice about future demonstrations and protests. The NAACP, at its core a conservative organization, was concerned with furthering its agenda without lapsing into violent confrontation, and cooperated with the FBI towards that end.

Perrusquia points out that as the father of eight children, the government money was a welcome addition to Withers’ unsteady income as a freelance photographer. As a World War II veteran (where he honed his skills with a camera in the South Pacific), with three sons in the armed forces (one in Vietnam), he was no Communist sympathizer. In all, Withers' earnings as an informant exceeded no more then $20,000, yet and still a tidy sum in those days before inflation and cost of living increases.

Chronicling a fateful evening

In spite his close relationship with King, Withers missed the fateful evening when the icon lost his life. He was holed up in his studio as King was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel several blocks away. South African journalist Joseph Louw was on hand producing a documentary on the martyred preacher, and thusly captured him expiring in a puddle of his own blood, and his associates and paramedics placing him in an ambulance for a futile transport to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Louw then took the film to the studio where the more technically proficient Withers developed them for prosperity. Louw also unknowingly was present as the informant reported in to his handler, Lawrence, about the unfolding events.

Years later, Withers alluded to this double life before he died in 2007 during an interview, circa 2000 with University of Memphis History Department Chair F. Jack Hurley.

“I always had F.B.I. agents looking over my shoulder and wanting to question me. I never tried to learn any high-powered secrets. It would have just been trouble... I was solicited to assist the F.B.I. by Bill Lawrence who was the F.B.I. agent here. He was a nice guy but what he was doing was pampering me to catch whatever leaks I dropped, so I stayed out of meetings where real decisions were being made.”

To be fair, it should be noted that Lawrence also monitored the Klu Klux Klan and other White subversives, successfully inhibiting their activities throughout Mississippi and Tennessee.

Today, Withers’ memory lives on in the museum that bears his name on the site of his old studio on Beale Street in Memphis. Titled the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery (https://www.thewitherscollection.com/) and curated by Connor Scanlon under the direction of the Withers family, it houses 1,800 archived images (out of an estimated 1.8 million yet to be processed).

Continual surveillance of Black America

Perrusquia balanced all these conflicting elements in the 368 page “A Spy in Canaan,” published last March. “Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers,” by Preston Lauterbach, to be released on Jan. 15, covers the same material.

Now associated with the University of Memphis, Perrusquia suggests certain facets of the Civil Rights Era have yet to be tapped (he says that Withers was just one of at least four paid informants within the realm of the Memphis FBI office alone). In this day and age, the exploits of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s method of monitoring and neutralizing elements deemed subversive or threatening to national security are well known. Lesser known is the legacy of the “Ghetto Informant Program” (GIP), which specifically targeted Black communities from 1967 to 1973. In any event, the methodology utilized during the life and times of Ernest Withers and his contemporaries are likely being replicated today.