Famed civil rights photographer doubled as FBI informant
By Michael Calderone
Ernest Withers, a revered civil rights photographer who captured iconic images of Martin Luther King Jr. on the night King was shot in Memphis, actually played a different role the day before: FBI informant.
The Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in Memphis, just completed a two-year investigation that reveals how Withers provided the FBI with details about where King was staying and information on his meeting with black militants on April 3, 1968 — the day before the assassination.
Withers’ spying, however, extends far beyond the slain civil rights leader.
The Commercial Appeal found FBI reports indicating that Withers collaborated for years with FBI agents monitoring the civil rights movement. Those FBI reports, the paper’s Marc Perrusquia writes, “reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer.”
Withers is certainly beloved in Memphis, where a namesake museum is scheduled to open next month. It remains to be seen how these new revelations may affect Withers’ legacy.
The Memphis paper reports how Withers’ spying assisted J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial FBI director who long covertly monitored King and others considered radicals. Withers, the paper notes, gave the bureau a “front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.” In the 1960s, he provided information on everyone from the Invaders — a militant black power group — to church leaders, politicians and business owners. Experts believe the FBI paid Withers for spying.
D’Army Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former activist once watched by the FBI, told the paper that such covert tactics are “something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes.”