Report: Famed Civil Rights Photographer Ernest Withers Spied for FBI

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Thomas S. England / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Photographer Ernest Withers outside the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tenn.

Ernest C. Withers had been the photographer who chronicled the civil rights movement through the 50s and 60s. His photos of the gruesome racial murder of teenager Emmitt Till still resonate to this day; he was there when nine students integrated Little Rock Central High School; and his camera shutters snapped just moments after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

And all the while, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Withers was betraying everything he knew about the civil rights movement to the FBI.

The report, released Tuesday, comes after the paper obtained records (through a Freedom of Information Act request) identifying Withers with an “informant number,” one of several people paid by the FBI to give information to the agency about civil rights leaders. Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, owned a photography studio on the storied Beale Street and had traveled to some of the major scenes of the movement. But government documents show a different side of Withers, the Appeal said.

Those reports portray Withers as a prolific informant who, from at least 1968 until 1970, passed on tips and photographs detailing an insider’s view of politics, business and everyday life in Memphis’ black community.

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.

Withers had been much revered as a photographer of history with displays of his work traveling the world, and also shown in many galleries. He was also famous for his photographs during the years of Negro League Baseball and four books of his work have been published.

Marc Perrusquia, projects reporter for the Appeal told NPR that his information came from 369 pages the government gave him relating to a public corruption scandal Withers was involved with during the early 70s. The references to Withers informant number, ME 338-R, were not obscured or censored and Perrusquia was able to make the connection.

Withers’ daughter, Rosalind, is withholding any comments, she says until she sees the documents. “This is the first time I’ve heard of this in my life,” she told the Appeal. “My father’s not here to defend himself. That is a very, very, strong, strong accusation.”

Listen to an audio presentation of Martin Luther King’s aides recounting his assassination.


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