It was recently discovered that Ernest Withers, a very well-known civil rights photographer, who was at the forefront of many of the pivotal movements in the African American community, including the murder of Emmett Till and the marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was actually playing both sides of the field, because he was also an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The news was made public recently, after a two-year investigation of Withers by The Commercial Appeal (CA), the daily newspaper in Memphis, Tenn. Through their investigation the CA was able to verify that Withers was on the FBI payroll as a confidential informant for at least two years and that during that time he divulged valuable information about Dr. King and other civil rights leaders’ movement strategy.
Because Withers was seen as an ally, he had unbridled access to some of the movement’s most confidential meetings and planning sessions. In the community, he was known as a supporter and ‘the original civil rights photographer.” But according to an FBI report, to them, he was known as ME 338-R, a super-informant who was “most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community,” and they made sure to utilize his privileges to the maximum.
Understandably, many influential members of the African American community were shocked and hurt to hear the news.
“If these allegations are true, I am shocked and extremely disappointed,” said Dorothy Gilliam, a journalist who worked with Withers while covering the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. “I never had any reason to suspect that he was doing this, when we worked together.”
“In my mind, I guess he did what he felt he had to do. We did what we felt we had to do,” said Harold Middlebrook, one of Dr. King’s top aides, in a phone interview with AOL News. “It is tragic that we were not on the same path and that he permitted himself to be used by others.”
Wither’s family claims that even they were kept in the dark about their father’s allegedly double-dealing past. “We, as a family, none of us have ever heard anything like this,” Withers’ daughter, Rosalind Withers, told WMCTV 5 in Memphis. “It’s very sad that someone would have the audacity to print something of that magnitude without him here to defend himself.”
Although emotions about the revelation are mixed, some prominent figures in the African American community are indifferent to the new finding,s because of a unified belief that the movement was always transparent and there was never any foul-play to report.
“His photographs still opened a lot of eyes,” Middlebrook said. “I really thought then, and still believe now, that Ernest had a serious commitment to the movement. He had seen the death of Emmett Till. He had been an African-American in the South.”