Photographer Ernest Withers Chronicled Civil Rights Movement, Worked For FBI : The Two-Way In an interview with NPR's Melissa Block, Marc Perrusquia, a projects reporter for 'The Commercial Appeal' newspaper, talks about his story on photographer Ernest Withers, who was on the FBI payroll.
NPR logo Photographer Ernest Withers Chronicled Civil Rights Movement, Worked For FBI

Photographer Ernest Withers Chronicled Civil Rights Movement, Worked For FBI

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a journalist for The Commercial Appeal learned that Ernest C. Withers, a Memphis-based photojournalist who chronicled the Civil Rights Movement, was also an FBI informant.

"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," Marc Perrusquia writes.

In Withers, who ran a popular Beale Street photography studio frequented by the powerful and ordinary alike, the FBI found a super-informant, one who, according to an FBI report, proved "most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community.''

For years, he shared photographs and information with federal agents. Withers enjoyed close access to civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. During many momentous events, he was there.

In an interview with NPR, projects reporter Marc Perrusquia said he filed his FOIA request in 2007, after Withers died.

"The information that I got from the government related to a public corruption probe that Mr. Withers was caught up in years after he was an informant that inadvertently revealed that he was an informant," Perrusquia said.

In those 369 pages, there were references to a confidential informant number, ME 338-R, which the FBI didn't redact. Using that code, Perrusquia pored over other documents in the public domain, uncovering a link between Withers and the FBI.

"It was surprising, to a level," he said, "but it makes perfect sense, because [Withers] was a guy who needed no excuse any place he went."

He was a great find for the FBI. It was surprising, to a point, but it makes perfect sense now.

In his article, Perrusquia notes that, "the one record that would pinpoint the breadth and detail of his undercover work -- his informant file -- remains sealed."

The Justice Department has twice rejected the newspaper's Freedom of Information requests to copy that file, and won't even acknowledge the file exists.