In many ways, civil rights photographer Ernest Withers would have been the perfect FBI informant, said leaders of the movement whom he photographed during quiet moments in their hotel rooms, at strategy meetings and in the midst of powerful street protests.
He was known to them as “Ernie” and later lionized as the “original civil rights photographer.” It was Withers who took photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the day he was slain on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and it was Withers who documented the trial of the men who killed young Emmett Till.
The revelation this week by the Memphis Commercial Appeal that Withers also assisted an organization that many in the movement considered an enemy further exposes the desperation of the federal government to gain access to the highest levels of the civil rights leadership.
The FBI kept an extensive file on King and his aides, and distrust between the movement’s leaders and the agency was great. Civil rights leaders knew their hotel rooms were bugged and were careful about what they said even on their home phones, knowing that federal agents were listening. They felt like people inside and outside of their organizations were always watching them.
“It was just par for the course,” said Juanita Jones Abernathy, widow of King’s close friend Ralph Abernathy. “They could be in strategy sessions, and the FBI had a way of calling almost immediately after they had made plans for something to inform them of what they had planned to do. They would check into hotels, and the FBI was in the room across the aisle.”
“But they kept moving,” she said.
Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, provided photographs, scheduling information and biographical sketches to two FBI agents in Memphis, according to files the Commercial Appeal attained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The photographer was a former police officer, and the Memphis newspaper noted that Withers had eight children and may have needed the money paid to informants to support them.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, knew Withers well and said he is disappointed. The photographer moved freely in the tight circle of King’s lieutenants, taking pictures and selling them to black magazines such as Jet and other outlets. He would give the photos free to the ministers who led the movement and could not afford to pay.
Those pictures have been collected in books and show a rare intimacy with civil rights leaders.
“He was very close,” Lowery said from his home in Atlanta. “He was beloved. I’m surprised and I’m a little disappointed, but I suspect he did it with his tongue in check knowing that he was not doing anything to hurt the movement.”
According to FBI files obtained by the Memphis newspaper during a two-year investigation, Withers worked closely with two FBI agents in the late 1960s.
“There was nothing he could report on us that would hurt us,” Lowery said. “We were not an undercover group. We didn’t have any need to hide. We weren’t planning any ambushes or surprise attacks. We were quite open with what we were planning to do. We publicized it and invited people to join it. He probably knew that as well as anybody.”