Exposed: Civil rights photographer revealed as FBI informant

Family argues that allegations are untrue

By Issa A. Mansaray
Contributing Writer

He captured the world’s most iconic images of Dr. Martian Luther King with a distinction that most leading photographers of his days envy up to today. He was present at every twist and turn of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. He photographed and documented the movement from start to finish.

Sadly, Ernest Withers had a secret that he kept until his death. He was an FBI informant, according to recently released FBI documents.

Withers died in 2007 at aged 85 and was exposed in the Sunday, Sept. 12 edition of The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, TN.

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, Chris Peck, the Appeal’s editor, explained to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in a phone interview their reasons for publishing the story, and how long it took them to investigate the piece.

“[What] we want to emphasize to the family, as it is reflective in our story and the editorials we wrote, is that this revelation does in no way uncut the value of Ernest Withers’ work as a photographer,” said Peck. “He had many iconic and historic photographs that no one else had and will be part of his legacy.”

Marc Perrusquia wrote in The Commercial Appeal that the FBI documents “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.”

Since the publication of the story Withers’ family, and many in the Civil Rights Movement, still find it unbelievable that Ernest C. Withers, whose images captured the Civil Rights Movement for the world, also worked as an FBI informant.

“They [Withers’ family] were as shocked about it as most people were,” said Peck about the family’s reaction to their story.

Peck said the family’s reaction was also divided, as one of Withers’ daughter was more concerned about the accuracy of the story.

“I can say without any shadow of a doubt that what we reported is true and accurate,” said Peck, whose newspaper broke the story. “There is certainly more to the story [that] we could do, and I hoping we get the opportunity to do more fully in the future.”

Withers cataloged many tense and crucial moments in the ’60s. He witnessed and photographed the Montgomery Bus Boycott and covered the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. His images and photographs are still powerful in telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Appeal’s editor said they tried to reach out to some of the civil rights leaders to make sure that they were aware of what The Commercial Appeal was doing before publishing the story. Many did not respond to the newspaper’s efforts. After the publication, there were a range of responses to the story. Some think it is a betrayal of the movement.

“We’ve been working on it for about two years,” said Peck, whose newspaper spent years in researching and investigating the story as reporters went through thousands of pages of documents. “We tried to piece together what was going on and talk to people close to Ernest Withers and those close to the Civil Rights Movements at the time.

“Our motivation was very clear. It is a piece of history that has emerged. It is an important piece of history because of the times in which Withers was taking photographs and the people he was dealing with,” said Peck, whose newspaper was tipped about the story from a former FBI agent.

“It was a very important time in the American history. We just felt that we wanted to do what we could to fill in some questions about what was going on in that period and also explain another dimension to the story of a very well-known photographer.”

The story, according to Peck, raises the question about how Americans feel when the government pays people to spy on fellow Americans.

“The other question it raises is why people very close to a particular cause…would
want to become an informant,” said Peck. “What does it say about human nature that something like that would happen? Those questions are as pertinent today as they were before.”

“The FBI did not tell us, but told The New York Times that they were going to investigate how the leak of [Withers’] identity occurred,” said Peck about the leaked documents. “They did not deny any of it but felt they have to examine their own procedures because some of this information came from FBI files released to us through the Freedom of Information Act, and I don’t think they like that. They are not saying it is not true.”

The Appeal is waiting for more files to answer questions such as how long Withers worked for the FBI, how much he was paid and if there were others in the movement who worked with Withers.

“How much he got paid and what materials he provided,” according to Peck, are some of the questions that need answers.
Withers’ son told MSR that he disagrees with the Commercial Appeal’s story.

“People in the movement dialogued with the agencies,” said Andrew Withers, second son of the famous photographer, who was with him in those days. “He did not work in any formal way with them; I can assure that… those are [just] allegations.”

In the ’60s, Hoover’s FBI carried out a covert operation codenamed COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program formed in order to penetrate radical groups at the time. It also leaked embarrassing information on individuals for the purpose of prosecution or smeared them so that they were fired from their jobs.

“We were all participants and part of the movement,” emphasized Andrew. “It is false, this allegation. My father died two years ago. There is no question about his past. He was in the movement for more than 65 years, and they took more than a year to write a report like that.

“My daddy did not take any money or sell any pictures to the FBI,” said Andrew. “He was not taking photographs to put anybody in danger.”

An interview with Earl Caldwell

Prof. Earl Caldwell covered the Civil Rights Movement alongside Ernest Withers in the 1960s. As the only Black journalist, Caldwell covered the movement for the New York Times (NYT) and had exclusive access to the Black Panthers in those days.

When the NYT posted him in San Francisco in the 1970s to report on the Black Panthers from the inside, the FBI pressured him to keep them informed about the Panthers’ activities. Caldwell refused the FBI and was prosecuted. His case, United States v. Caldwell, opened a stream of moral questions on freedom of the press and led to the passing of the shield laws in many states that permit reporters to protect their sources and information.

As the first Black reporter to become a national correspondent, Caldwell was entangled in the Supreme Court decision to clarify reporters’ rights in covering the Movement. The court ruled that reporters did not have to keep information about their sources, but Caldwell was never summoned to testify.

With a career that spans over 40 years, Caldwell, who has worked for The Progress in Clearfield, PA., the Intelligencer-Journal in Lancaster, PA., The Democrat and The Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., the New York Daily News, N.Y., the New York Amsterdam News, N.Y., and covered the civil and political turmoil of the ’60s, believes Wither’s case brings up another moral dilemma for journalists.

Caldwell was an eyewitness to history: He was the only journalist present when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN. Born in Clearfield, PA, Caldwell met and worked alongside Withers in covering riots, protests, and Dr. King’s death in the 1960s.

Now a professor of journalism at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University in Virginia, Caldwell said the Black community in the South in the 1960s granted a special trust to Black journalists, and some of those journalists took out an ad in Black newspapers in February 1970 pledging not to spy or inform or betray that trust.

Here he (EC) talks about The Commercial Appeal’s story and his late colleague.

MSR: What was your reaction to The Commercials Appeal’s story that revealed Ernest Withers as an FBI informant?

EC: I was dumbfounded and shocked, in part because I knew Ernest and he seemed so totally committed to his work and to serving his community. I was so stunned that at first I refused to believe the story. I wanted to see some proof positive.

Ernest was a good man. He did good work. I hate to believe that he was not honest with his community.

MSR: Will this be a major problem for Black journalists covering their communities, or beats?

EC: It will be a problem for journalists regardless of skin color. So many people believe that journalists are part of law enforcement, and this only makes a bad problem worse.  

MSR: Did you ever notice Withers as someone with a motivation to spy or betray Black activists?

EC: There was nothing that ever made me suspect in any way that Ernest was not exactly who he said he was — a photographer and a dedicated and positive member of the Black community.

MSR: What was your working relation like with Withers in those days?

EC: I met Ernest in Memphis at the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We were on the same assignments from time to time then and got to know each other, him telling me about Memphis and me sharing with him information from the places where my reporting then took me around the country.

I last saw him a few years ago at Syracuse University at a reunion of reporters who covered events during the Civil Rights Movement. He gave me a couple of his pictures that he had made into posters, and I bought a few. I have some here in my office at Hampton University.

MSR: Is there anything else that I should know about Withers as a photographer that I’ve not asked?

EC: To describe Ernest as “a photographer” only is misleading. In Memphis, on Beale Street during Movement days, he had a studio that was very much a drop-in place in the community. He photographed weddings, special events, and did portraits. He was the Black photographer.

He was freelance in news work and sold his pictures mostly to the Black newspapers. He had press credentials and proudly wore them around his neck when covering news stories. He was well known and knew everybody.

That had to be what attracted the attention of the FBI. Ernest had access. He was connected, and the FBI knew that he could be especially valuable.

Issa A. Mansaray welcomes reader responses to