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.”
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.