Withers: Conversant With - And Informing On - The Negro Community

Withers: Conversant With - And Informing On - The Negro Community

by
Abby Zimet

Iconic image: The photograph most often associated with Withers' legacy as a photojournalist shows more than 5,000 men lined up prior to the March 28, 1968 march led by Martin Luther King during the sanitation workers’ strike. Most wore their Sunday best because they believed in the righteousness of the cause. Reports from that period show Withers was a constant source of information for the FBI during the strike, handing over documents and pictures and providing details from strategy meetings. (© Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, Boston, Mass.)
Withers' iconic image of the 1968 march led by Martin
Luther King during the sanitation workers’ strike.

Ernest
Withers - the so-called
"original civil rights photographer" who as a black insider covered the
Emmett Till murder, the Little Rock school crisis and
the 1968 sanitation strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis
and his death - was in fact a prolific informer for the FBI, a two-year
investigation by Memphis' Commercial Appeal has found. The paper studied
FBI reports that praised Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, as "most
conversant with all key activities in the Negro community.''

"It is an amazing betrayal," said Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University. "It really speaks to the degree
that the F.B.I. was able to engage individuals within the civil rights
movement. This man was so well-trusted."

 

Chronicler and informant: Ernest C. Withers is shown in 1968 in front of his Beale Street studio. That same year, the respected chronicler of the civil rights era passed photographs and information to a now-defunct wing of the FBI that was spying on Americans. (© Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, Boston, Mass.)

Ernest C. Withers in 1968 in front of his Beale Street studio. 

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