Surprise At Ernest Withers Revelations

Ernest Withers is known as the official photographer of the Civil Rights movement, but a new investigation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reveals he was also a spy for the FBI — informing on the thoughts and movements of Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Earl Caldwell,who knew Withers, offers his insight. Caldwell is a professor at the Hampton University's Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications in Hampton, Va.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And Im David Greene.

Ernest Withers was a photojournalist on the frontline of the Civil Rights Movement. Withers, who died in 2007, was an insider with access to Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders. But now we learn that he was more than a man behind a camera. He was also an FBI informant.

BLOCK: That information was revealed over the weekend in an investigation by the Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal. The paper found that Withers passed on tips and photographs to the FBI and likely got paid for it.

For some context on this story, we turned to Earl Caldwell. He was a national correspondent for The New York Times who covered the Civil Rights Movement alongside Ernest Withers. I asked him how he responded when he first heard the news.

Professor EARL CALDWELL (Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, Hampton University): Well, I was in stunned disbelief. I'd known Ernie since either a day before or a day after the assassination. I met him in the Lorraine Motel and I've known him through the years. I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CALDWELL: I just - it makes no sense to men.

BLOCK: It makes no sense.

Prof. CALDWELL: No, it does not. I mean, they say it was some small amount of money. But for the black journalist, this has been the core issue and thats true for almost a half century. Indeed, in 1970, I have a copy of it here. In February of 1970, we took full-page ads in black newspapers and the headline says, A Message to the Black Community from Black Journalists: We will not be used as spies, informants or under-cover agents by anybody; we will protect our confidential sources using every means of our disposal...

BLOCK: Hmm.

Prof. CALDWELL: ...we strongly object to attempts by law enforcement agencies to exploit our blackness.

BLOCK: How much pressure was there at the time, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement from the FBI and others to inform on what was going on?

Prof. CALDWELL: Well, it's an ongoing thing. It is always there. Thats why we made that pledge to the black community because - Im not saying it was only the journalists; Im sure there were many other people doing other lines of work that the pressure was also there. But the journalists, we were part of this story. And the thing that we had, the thing that made - set us apart was we had access. We had access.

One of the things when people talk about Ernest, they say that he had access. He was everywhere. And it was the same for me with the Panthers, I had the access. Thats what set us apart and thats what the government was determined to mess with.

BLOCK: And when you say Ernest Withers had access, why dont you explain just what kind of access that was. Where was he?

Prof. CALDWELL: What it means is that he could go in those rooms where other reporters, other photographers could not go. He could go into a private meeting while that meeting was going on. He could snap pictures. He could...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CALDWELL: He had that trust that allowed him to step into places where others could not go. And now, when they say he was informing, I mean, maybe he had it in his mind that he wasnt really informing, that he was just gaming them, giving them some stuff that didnt amount to anything. We dont know because he's not here to explain.

BLOCK: Right.

Prof. CALDWELL: But we need an explanation.

BLOCK: Do you think, Mr. Caldwell, that this really taints the legacy of Ernest Withers in a profound way? Or do the photos stand as they did, as emblems of a time and iconic images of what was going on and his position in the movement?

Prof. CALDWELL: Well, I think there's the two things. His works speaks for itself. But if all that we've been told through these documents that have been released, if thats true, then it puts a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CALDWELL: ...a very, very, very heavy, heavy mark not just on him and his work but on the trust that the black journalists made many years ago with the black community. For they gave us access. They let us go. When they were saying white reporters out, the black reporter had total access and we tried to live up to that trust. And what they're telling us now is that Ernest Withers didnt do that.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Caldwell, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. CALDWELL: Thank you.

BLOCK: Thats Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter who covered the Civil Rights Movement along with photojournalist Ernest Withers. Caldwell is now a professor of journalism at Hampton University.

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