Ernest C. Withers, one of the most important photographers of the Civil Rights era, was very likely a paid FBI informant. Ernest C. Withers, who made some of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century, was probably a snitch. Ernest C. Withers, who counted Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other Civil Rights leaders as friends, seems to have ratted them out.
Like a lot of other people, I spent much of yesterday and today deeply saddened and mildly shocked, trying to make sense of the evidence that The Commercial Appeal -- Memphis, Tennessee's, leading newspaper -- uncovered in a lengthy investigation into Withers' collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], during the 1960s and '70s. The FBI's own records and reports, which the newspaper obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, indicate that Withers was
The question, of course, is why? Why did Withers betray the people and principles that he loved the most?
Ernest C. Withers: More than 5,000 men lined up prior to the March 28, 1968 march led by Martin Luther King during the sanitation workers' strike. (Copyright Ernest C. Withers Trust.)
Nothing will change the fact that Withers created some of the most powerful, moving, and, yes, iconic photographs of his day. For instance, his photo of the striking Memphis sanitation workers carrying signs with read "I Am A Man" embodied the spirit and dignity not only of the strikers but of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. It has been reprinted many times, in many places. It adorns, for instance, the dustjacket (front and back) of Freedom, the monumental photographic history of the African American freedom struggle that was published in 2002, by Phaidon.
Withers also made some of the most intimate photographs the struggle and its people. The photo below of Martin Luther King, Jr., is just one example.
There is no doubt at all that Withers genuinely supported the movement and that he was sincerely a friend of many of its leaders.
So, we're back to the question of Why?
Why, if The Commercial Appeal's investigation is correct, did he collaborate with the FBI, an institution that under its frankly racist and reactionary director, J. Edgar Hoover, was an enemy of racial reform and social justice, an enemy of the African American people?
Ernest C. Withers: Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, in 1966, two years before his assassination at the same location. (Copyright Ernest C. Withers Trust.)
We'll never really know the answer to that question. Withers died in 2007, believing that he was taking his secrets to the grave. The FBI agent with whom he worked most closely, William Lawrence, died in 1990, having never spoken publicly about their work together.
The Commercial Appeal suggests that the reasons might have to do with the money that he was paid (he was supporting a large family). Or it might be another example of the poor ethical decisions that, from time to time, got him into legal difficulties.
I can't claim to be an expert on the Civil Rights Movement or on the FBI, but I do know a thing or two about South Africa. I've been thinking about the parallels here between the two countries. It seems to me that South African examples can shed some light on Withers' story.
The South African political activists that I met, when I first lived in the country, in 1989 and '90, were some of the most impressive people that I'd ever met. The anti-apartheidstruggle was nearing its climax. The South African army was occupying black townships all over the nation. Tens of thousands of activists languished in detention, without charges and without access to lawyers. Many of them were being tortured while in prison. Police and security service death squads were active. The courage, dedication, and humanity of the activists I met truly humbled me. I didn't believe that I could have measured up to their standards. Years later, some -- a very few -- were revealed to have been informers. And I faced the same questions that Wither's friends are facing now (always with the priviso that The Commercial Appeal has its facts straight).
During the apartheid era, police and security agents, working for the white supremacist state, recruited many black freedom fighters as informers and agents and successfully infiltrated liberation organizations, such as the African National Congress. The same questions arise: Why did people do it? Why did black South Africans cooperate with the enemy?
Nearly two decades after the fall of apartheid, we now know some of the answers. The sources are many -- legal investigations, personal testimonies, investigative reporting, autobiographies... From these varied accounts, we have many individual stories, and they tell us that the reasons people collaborated were almost always specific to the individual. Some were coerced through methods that included everything from the threatened exposure of embarrassing incidents to the most brutal torture imaginable. Others were bribed. Some were flattered and seduced. Some genuinely changed sides.
Ernest C. Withers, posing in front of his Memphis studio, in 1968. (Copyright Ernest C. Withers Trust.)
In Withers' case, he seems that he might have been a man with a large ego, who liked having it stroked. The FBI certainly seems to have known how to make him feel important. In addition, according to The Commercial Appeal, money seems to have been a consideration. Finally, in several instances not related to the FBI, he showed that he was not a paragon of ethical behavior.
The South African example also suggests that we should give some credit to FBI agent William Lawrence, who seems to have been as smooth and sophisticated as the South African agents who flattered and seduced people into betraying their cause and their comrades. It's wrong to think of these agents as brutes and numb skulls. Some were. But many others were smart, charming, and clever enough to get people to let down their guard. Lawrence, for instance, also charmed his way into the good graces of the executive director of the Memphis NAACP and her husband. For a number of years, The Commercial Appeal has shown, he visited them often, combining, it would appear, information gathering with socializing.
Like all of us, Withers was complicated. Like all of us, he made mistakes. Like very few of us, he created moments of greatness.
I'll let The Commercial Appeal have the last few words. They seem right to me. The newspaper sums things up this way:
...it would be wrong to ignore the harm he did as a participant in a dirty tricks campaign that threatened the jobs, marriages and the lives of people whose goal was to seek justice and opportunity for all Americans.
Still, the photographs are magnificent. More than 40 years later, they still create a sense of intimacy with baseball players, blues musicians, and people just living life in all its phases as well as the great leaders, striking sanitation workers, black nationalists, sheriffs, rioters, segregationists, National Guard troops -- all those who were caught up in the swiftly moving events of the 1950s and 1960s that wrought profound change in the country.
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PS My friend Stan B. has reminded me that even the FBI's own internal documents are not to be trusted blindly. The agency was (and may still be), he points out, masterful at playing dirty tricks. I agree. Even though it seems to me that The Commercial Appeal has proceeded with great caution and has found independent sources to corroborate some of the evidence that it uncovered in the FBI records, it remains possible that Withers was not an informer.
PPS George E. Hardin, a Memphis photographer and writer who knew Withers well, also cautions against a rush to judgement, especially on the basis of yet-unproven claims. You can read his commentary, here.
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This report from Newsy.com will give you an idea about how various mainstream media outlets are covering this story. The multitude of voices and viewpoints is fascinating, but, given the circumstances, not surprising.