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Ernest Withers: Iconic Civil Rights Photographer – and FBI Informant?

Ernest Withers he may not be the best-known name in the civil rights movement, but he was its best-known photographer. As a photojournalist, Withers captured incredible images of important moments in American history. From the iconic image of Emmett Till's mutilated body to the now-legendary photo of sanitation workers shoulder to shoulder in Memphis, Tennessee, carrying signs that read, “I am a man,” Withers' photos spread awareness about the injustice of Black America .

But his legacy got a little more complicated in 2010. The Commercial Appeal newspaper, which covers Memphis, found that Withers essentially lived a double life, having worked as a paid informant for the FBI for years. Was he a traitor to the civil rights movement he so eloquently photographed, or is there more to his story?

Content

  1. Who was Ernest Withers?
  2. Why did the FBI watch the civil rights movement?
  3. What is Ernest Withers' legacy?

Who was Ernest Withers?

Ernest Withers took photography classes in the U.S. Army while serving during World War II in the Pacific Theater. After the war, he worked as a beat cop on Beale Street in his hometown of Memphis, as one of the first black police officers. Thanks to this beat, he was able to photograph some of the future legends of music history, from BB King and Aretha Franklin to Ike and Tina Turner.

Withers was also prominent in the civil rights movement. He was the only photographer to document the entire Emmett Till murder trial and captured Dr. and Ralph David Abernathy on the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. He also photographed the “Little Rock Nine” at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, after Brown v. Board of Education. Board of Education banned segregation in public schools.

Other things of note in the history he captured include the Montgomery bus boycott, Medgar Evers' funeral, the Black Panther Party, and the Lorraine Motel after MLK's assassination. In total, he took about 1.8 million photos of black life during his 60-year career.

After Withers died of a stroke in 2007, Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia began working on Withers' biography for the paper. That's when a former FBI agent told Perrusquia that they never worried about wiretapping King's meetings because they had Withers. But the informant refused to tell Perrusquia any more.

Perrusquia spent years investigating the story, petitioning the FBI with Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the truth about this informant, until, after a long process, many of Withers' confidential records were released. That's when Perrusquia finally determined that Withers had, in fact, worked as an FBI informant during the 1960s.

A young Ernest Withers
A young Ernest Withers is seen here with his 1941 Ford Woody photo mobile in Memphis, Tennessee.

Why did the FBI watch the civil rights movement?

It remains unclear why the FBI monitored the movements of civil rights activists, but history shows that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed King was influenced by communists. However, Withers' motivations are not understood; some think he was in it for the money to support his family of eight children. Perrusquia determined that the FBI paid Withers about US$20,000; this equates to about US$ 170,000 in today's money. Others think that he himself may have had some anti-communist feelings, since several of his sons fought in the Vietnam War.

But Withers also had a history of corruption. In 1948, he lost his job as a police officer for smuggling whiskey, and in 1981, he was also caught in a cash-for-clemency scandal with a Tennessee judge, where criminals were basically able to buy their way out of prison. Withers testified against the judge, having reached a deal with the state. But even with such high stakes, he never revealed his work to the FBI.

What is Ernest Withers' legacy?

James Meredith Against Fear.
Ernest Withers (far right with camera) was there on June 7, 1966, when Dr. Martin Luther King and others participated in the James Meredith March Against Fear. Meredith, the first African American enrolled at the University of Mississippi, was wounded by a sniper the day before near Hernando, Mississippi. Next to Withers (in sunglasses) is the Rev. James Lawson. 

Since news broke that Withers was an informant in 2010, it has been met with mixed feelings. Some civil rights leaders felt that they had been betrayed and that their trust had been abused. Others, like Ambassador Andrew Young, who was MLK's lieutenant, told The New Yorker that they are not surprised by Withers' double life because at the time they felt the FBI wiretapped everything but did not suspect Withers himself.

Manning Marable, who was the founding director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African American Studies and one of the most prestigious scholars of the black American experience, also reserved judgment when he spoke to The New Yorker in 2010.

“It’s important to remember the times he lived in and the excessive pressure to inform,” he said. “The best thing we can say about Withers is that he played a dual role, as an informant who undoubtedly disrupted the movement, but also as a photographer who used his talents in the name of advocacy, social justice and equality.”

Withers is the subject of a new documentary titled “The Picture Taker,” which premiered on PBS on January 30, 2023. The film, produced and directed by Emmy and Peabody Award winner Phil Bertelsen, includes archival testimony from the agent Withers' FBI supervisor, William Lawrence, plus new interviews with Lawrence's daughter and other civil rights activists who were once close to Withers.

“There is almost no one else in contemporary U.S. history who has chronicled African-American life with as much depth and intimacy as Ernest Withers,” said Phil Bertelsen in a press release. “We want to capture the complexity of Withers, from his undeniable accomplishments and contributions to Black history, culture and journalism as a whole, to the underlying issue of his work with the FBI and how it impacts that legacy. We wanted to honor Withers’, her community, and the work of activists by using her photographs to convey the realities of the segregated South to future generations.”

Now this is interesting

While some of Withers' most iconic images were taken of activists during the civil rights movement, he also photographed sports, blues and rock and roll legends such as Elvis Presley, BB King, Jackie Robinson and 17-year-old Willie Mays . Today his photos are part of permanent collections

Madeleine Aparecida Lafetá Rabelo

Studied Master's Degree PPGP UFJF at the educational institution UFJF - Federal University of Juiz de Fora. She has worked as a pedagogue since 1997, a lawyer since 2011. Passionate about education, law and a pinch of esotericism and the meaning of dreams. I love reading and writing.