Civil Rights Photographer Withers Outed as FBI Informant
Revered civil rights photographer Ernest Withers, who had access to high-profile activists and leaders of the movement during the 1960s, was at the same time working as paid FBI informant, according to a report by The Memphis Commercial Appeal.
“As a foot soldier in J. Edgar Hoover’s domestic intelligence program, Withers helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis,” the paper says. Hoover was the long-time FBI director who spied on American political activists–including Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders–in an effort to disrupt, discredit and neutralize their organizations.
Wither died in 2007 at the age of 85. He photographed the civil rights movement from the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955 through the assassination Martin Luther King in 1968 and amassed one of the largest archives an on African-American society, music and culture. His work appeared in Time, Newsweek, Ebony, The New York Times and other publications. His civil rights images were collected in the book Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History, published in 2000.
The Commercial Appeal isn’t clear about when it discovered Withers’ hidden past as a paid FBI informant, but says it came across his informant ID number by chance in a document related to a public corruption probe from 1970 that involved the photographer. At the time, he was a state employee and had been accused of taking payoffs, the newspaper said.
The FBI blacked out informant ID numbers before releasing the document, but apparently overlooked one number–Withers’ own.
“That number, in turn, unlocked the secret of the photographer’s 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released…30 years ago,” the newspaper explains. “Those reports — more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI’s files on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 probe of the Invaders — at times pinpoint specific actions by Withers and in other instances show he was one of several informants contributing details.”
The paper says, “It’s uncertain what impact the revelation will have on Withers’ legacy.”
Withers’ daughter and nephew told The Commercial Appeal that they had no idea he had been an informant. Another source quoted by the newspaper, Reverend James M. Lawson, 81, said, “I’m not surprised…the police and FBI were very clever about entrapping” blacks and making them informants. (Lawson became the target of an FBI probe after he supported the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.)
Another activist Withers spied on said the news that he had been an informant does not tarnish his legacy. “It does not alter who he was a person,” said Coby Smith, a former member of The Invaders, a militant group that the FBI broke up using tips from Withers. “He did so many more things. That wasn’t a full-time thing to be an informant for them.”