Which Side Are You On? 

Another look at civil rights photographer Ernest Withers’ relationship with the F.B.I

Ernest Withers inside his office on Beale Street

Withers Family Trust

Ernest Withers inside his office on Beale Street

"Which side are you on?" was the piercing, distinguishing question of the civil rights movement. And I never doubted the answer of my friend and collaborator, the great African-American photographer, Ernest Withers. Friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and other leaders, Withers covered the movement from Emmett Till's trial through the Poor People's March, making images that have been called "supreme examples of photography being used to enact social change."

So, when a September story in The Commercial Appeal called "Double Exposure" proclaimed Withers an "F.B.I. mole" — and that story was picked up nationally and internationally — I wanted to know more about the allegations. Was he, as The New York Times said in its Week in Review, "for many years ... a paid informant"? "A guy," as activist Dick Gregory told The Washington Post, "hired by the F.B.I. to destroy us"? And was this, as the CA wrote, "a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer"?

The answer to the last turns out to be a clear no: Withers had discussed his relationship with the F.B.I. in a published interview he gave in 2000.

"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."

The implication here is that — as a well-known and connected Memphian who was friendly with local and national civil rights leaders — Withers was under constant pressure from the F.B.I. Reaction to the story indicates this was pretty common at the time. Journalist and professor Earl Caldwell told PBS' NewsHour, the F.B.I. "hounded" newsmen: "They were always asking everybody." Founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Julian Bond told The Washington Post, "Lots of people talked to the F.B.I. and did so innocently." And Post columnist William Raspberry added: "Sometimes you have to throw them a little something to get them off your back."

So, what did Withers throw his inquisitors? The story in The Commercial Appeal implied the worst: "Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants." The unnerving insinuation here is that Withers' behavior may have somehow been connected to the shooting.

I went through the relevant F.B.I. files as provided by The Commercial Appeal. I found no suggestion that Withers was dropping any high-powered secrets about King. For example, he apparently told the F.B.I. that King was staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. But that was where the leader — and just about every other prominent black out-of-towner — stayed when in town. And it had been reported in major newspapers. As to his "shadowing" his old friend: Isn't that a photographer's job?

Repetitious and often unclear as to sources, the files show Withers talking with the F.B.I. not "for many years" but between 1968 and 1970. And the photographer focused not on King but on a small group of "suspected black militants" called the Invaders. To understand why, it helps to recall the political situation.

By 1968, the nonviolent movement was sputtering, dismissed by many as old-fashioned and ineffective. One of the reasons King agreed to go to Memphis was to drum up support for his upcoming Poor People's March on Washington. He was told the sanitary workers strike had produced "the broadest coalition ever in Memphis," including dozens of African-American ministers and community leaders, as well as representatives of the Invaders.

On March 18, 1968, King spoke to 15,000 people at the Mason Temple, urging them to adopt the strategy of a "general work stoppage" and promising to return to lead a protest march through the city's streets. When he came back 10 days later, the march only lasted 25 minutes before it disintegrated into "wild looting." Two hundred and eighty people were arrested, 60 hospitalized, and one killed. For King, it was a savage disappointment. "Maybe we just have to admit," he told his advisers afterward, "that the day of violence is here."

Trace what Withers leaked to the F.B.I., and it seems that the photographer, too, was concerned about the threat to the nonviolent movement. He's first cited as a source in a late-February 1968 report that describes how different "Negro factions" were competing to run the strike. He was one of 1,300 who attended a pre-strike meeting, and the day before the big march, he helped nail together the "I AM A MAN" signs that marchers carried. His photo of those signs has become iconic, and his up-close images of the violence that followed provide compelling evidence that it wasn't just looting but a police riot — with the Memphis officers quick to use mace and billy clubs.

After that, almost all the F.B.I. reports that cite Withers are about the Invaders. He didn't think them capable of much action but was concerned that they were trying to "scare and blackmail the community." He worried that the group's violent rhetoric might continue to hurt King's reputation. And that, in turn, would help the F.B.I. discredit the leader. Indeed, Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King notes that the trouble in Memphis was "a godsend to the F.B.I." The next day, J. Edgar Hoover's agency told "cooperative news sources" that King's brand of protest would only lead to "vandalism, looting and riot."

In fact, a Memphis police officer had infiltrated the Invaders before the march. And a congressional investigation later looked into the question of whether the looting might have been provoked by the infiltrator. Withers appears to be the source who told the F.B.I. that only 1 percent of the marchers had looted, that the violence didn't seem organized, and that the Invaders had not played a leading role.

Feeling the need for the "rehabilitation" of his movement, King returned in early April to show that nonviolence could work in Memphis. Only a couple thousand people were in the Mason Temple April 3rd to hear his famous speech announcing he'd been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. The next day, he was killed.

Withers continued to provide information, mostly on the Invaders, until January 1970. Then, he apparently told the F.B.I.: "The Invaders for all practical purposes is a dead organization." And his days of dropping leaks ended.

Was Withers on the agency's payroll? The original Commercial Appeal story states that "experts" believe he "fits the profile of a closely supervised, paid informant." Only one expert is cited, author Athan Theoharis. And there's no evidence in the F.B.I. files that Withers was either paid or supervised: no cashed checks, no orders to infiltrate this or that event. Yet by the time the story makes the front page of The New York Times, this appears as fact: "He was a paid F.B.I. informant."

In the over 7,000 pages of F.B.I. reports The Commercial Appeal consulted, almost all the information attributed to Withers is from meetings open to the public or was already widely known. For example, where The Commercial Appeal declares that Withers provided the F.B.I. with "a virtual directory of strike-support organizers," the document turns out to be a newsletter available to anyone who asked.

What these previously secret files do confirm is that the F.B.I. — not Withers — was out to get King. One report characterizes the civil rights leader as "a confirmed Marxist." The agency is eager for all rumor and innuendo. And the white, mainstream media joined in the bashing. After the looting, The Commercial Appeal questioned the leader's courage in an editorial cartoon entitled "Chicken a la King."

Four decades later, The Commercial Appeal's front-page "exposure" of Ernest Withers has some of the same elements of character assassination. Its follow-up editorial declares that in April 1968, "the FBI had an on-the-ground insider to keep them informed of King's activities. That informant, according to Federal sources, was Ernest Withers." Except the documents don't support that. The F.B.I. had a real insider who traveled with King, sat in on important meetings, and knew about the movement's finances. That informant has repeatedly been identified as the comptroller of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition. Withers didn't have that kind of access and, per his own statement, didn't want it.

Did Withers "drop leaks" to the F.B.I. between 1968 and 1970? Yes. Were they "high-powered secrets" that undermined King's civil rights movement? No, not according to the F.B.I. records released so far. Was the photographer paid and closely supervised? There's no evidence of that. If The Commercial Appeal has hard facts to back up these allegations, it should produce them. (The Commercial Appeal filed suit in November in U.S. District Court in Washington, hoping to get the F.B.I. to release Withers' full confidential informant file.) If it doesn't, they remain just that: allegations tarnishing the reputation of a man no longer alive to defend himself.

That said, the damage to Withers' legacy may already be done. To some, any contact with the F.B.I. is unforgivable; it may even affect their judgment of his extraordinary photographs. But the facts prove more complicated than that, reflecting the tremendous pressures of the civil rights era. In the battle between Hoover's F.B.I. and King's movement — between those who tried to suppress our rights and those who fought for them — nothing in these files shakes my belief about which side Ernest Withers was on.

Daniel Wolff's most recent book is How Lincoln Learned To Read. He collaborated with Ernest Withers on The Memphis Blues Again and Negro League Baseball. A version of this story recently appeared at counterpunch.org.

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