Famed Civil Rights Photographer Outed As FBI Informant
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Next, to the story of a man who took some of the most iconic photographs of the civil rights era South, including those of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ernest Withers also had his camera trained on some of the most well known musicians who would make it a point to stop by his Beale Street studio in Memphis.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Mr. ERNEST WITHERS (Photographer): I've seen everybody that came to Beale Street, from Count Basie to Chick Webb to Fats Waller to Jimmy Longsworth(ph) to Elvis Presley, the B.B. King. I did (unintelligible) pictures: B.B. King, Junior Parker, Bobby Bland and a number of other emerging musicians.
MARTIN: That's the voice of Ernest Withers from a 1999 interview he did with NPR's Debbie Elliott. Ultimately it was with his photographs of the Reverend King to whom he had almost constant access, and his work as the only photojournalist to document the trial of Emmett Till, that put his mark in the history books.
But now it seems that that history will have to be amended. Over the weekend, the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper published the results of a two-year investigation that showed that Mr. Withers had kept a closer watch on the events of the civil rights movement than anybody at the time knew. He was reporting his findings to the FBI.
Here to talk with me about this news is historian David Garrow. His book "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference" won a Pulitzer Prize. He's currently a senior research fellow at Homerton College at the University of Cambridge. And he's with us now on the line from Paris. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. DAVID GARROW (University of Cambridge): Hi, happy to be with you.
MARTIN: Did you ever suspect? Did anyone ever suspect that this was going on?
Mr. GARROW: Not with Mr. Withers individually, no. But by 1967, 1968, the FBI was focusing so much effort on recruiting racial informants that it's contextually not a surprise that someone who had such wide-ranging access as Mr. Withers would've been a highly attractive recruitment target for the Memphis FBI office.
MARTIN: If you could give us some sense of who some of these spies were - who were some of the people who were spies? I don't know if you even agree with that term, but who were some of the people who were known to have been informing with the FBI and why were they doing that?
Mr. GARROW: It's a mixed bag or a mixed population. And it's very important to think about the chronology of the civil rights movement. There are ministers from 1956, 1957 who are coded in FBI files. They have informant code numbers, you know, like, ME338, or you know, AT, you know, 721 assigned to them. But they didn't know that when some friendly local FBI agent would drop by every three weeks to ask them what was going on and they chatted in a friendly, revealing manner, that didn't mean that they had any realization that they were being portrayed as confidential informants.
Now, what's very different is when you have someone like Mr. Withers, or much more seriously, an SCLC employee - SCLC was Dr. King's organization - James A. Harrison, who was revealed in 1981, Mr. Harrison and Mr. Withers are both documented to have been taking cash payments from the FBI. And so to my mind that's what makes it different in kind.
If you're taking $20 bills or $50 bills in an unmarked envelope and initialing a little receipt, that's a whole lot different than just chatting with an agent who drops by your church.
MARTIN: And I was going to ask you that question, if you had a sense of if you have a sense of why he might have been doing this, why he might've been passing information to the FBI.
Mr. GARROW: The Memphis newspaper and the really first rate reporter there, Marc Perrusquia, who's been working on this for years, I know that the Commercial Appeal's view is that Mr. Withers was always trying to make ends meet as a, you know, freelance photographer. He had a large family. You know, certainly the Commercial Appeal believes that, you know, he needed the money.
But generally in the 30 years that I've been reading FBI files and thinking about informants, the vast majority of certainly African-Americans who were reporting to the FBI weren't doing it for the relatively modest amounts of money involved. They were doing it more for the adrenaline excitement of playing secret agent man.
MARTIN: Interesting. And finally - we have about a minute left - can you just give us a sense of where - how do you think we will view Ernest Withers? When you look at the images that he created of the movement, which for many are how they will remember the movement - through his work, and then finding out this information, how do you think it'll all square in the end? Reverend James Lawson, who organized rallies throughout the '60s, said if this true, Ernie abused our friendship. How do you think history will judge him now?
Mr. GARROW: I don't think that this revelation will in any way alter our judgment of Mr. Withers as a phenomenally historically important photographer. Whether he was - you know, how much cash he was taking from the FBI to report on what he heard about this meeting or that rally or who said what to who, that doesn't change the value of those photographs. Those photographs are his legacy and they outlive both him and his sin.
MARTIN: All right, thank you so much. David Garrow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the author of many books, including "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference." He was with us from Paris. David Garrow, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GARROW: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And you can see a slide show of photos from Ernest Withers by going to our blog. Go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Next up, a conversation with Freeman Hrabowski about moving minority kids into science.
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