Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ernest Withers: The FBI Informant

Some of you may recognize Ernest Withers photographs before you recognize his name. Remember this photo from the Sanitations Workers Strike?

Withers captured this photograph, along with countless others, in order to document the oppression and brutality that African Americans endured during the civil rights movement. He was a well-liked, well-trusted photographer and was able to gain access to intimate meetings and events that other white/northern journalist were not. Withers followed and photographed leaders such as James Lawson, Martin Luther King, and James Meredith. At the same time, Withers also focused his work towards photographing the everyday segregated life in Memphis (such as the Memphis Zoo sign below). Wither’s was able to contribute a unique collection of photographs that accurately portrayed the American South during the 50’s and 60’s.

Due to his large contribution to the movement, many people were surprised when the Memphis Commercial Appeal released an article uncovering Withers as an FBI informant. Due to a FBI clerical error, the Commercial Appeal discovered a document that described Withers as informant ME 338-R. From there the newspaper unearthed many FBI documents containing information from ME 338-R. Most of the information that Withers delivered to the FBI was on the Invaders, although some was just on smaller scale happenings in Memphis.

Just recently, on February 25, 2013, the Commercial Appeal finalized a legal settlement with the FBI that will allow the newspaper access to sections of 70 investigative files in which Withers was used as an informant. They plan to release these documents over the next few years. Hopefully the complete series of the documents in which Withers was an informant will help unearth why Withers doubled as an FBI informant.

As I was researching Withers I came across an intriguing quote from him about his interactions with the FBI. He explained that with regards to civil rights group meetings he, “never tried to monitor what they were doing [too closely]. I was always interested in their outside work but I tried not to know too much about the inside because I always had FBI agents looking over my shoulder and wanting to question me…I was solicited to assist the FBI by Bill Lawrence who was the FBI agent here. He was a nice guy but what he was doing was pampering me to catch whatever leaks I dropped, so I stayed out of meetings where real decisions were being made.”[1] Since I was aware of his informant status before reading this quote I was shocked. What caused Withers to become an FBI informant? Was he telling the truth about his interaction with Bill Lawrence? Currently, these questions are perplexing to answer since we lack all necessary information on Withers’ role as an informant. Some part of me wants to believe that maybe he was worried about the actions and plans of the Invaders and that caused him to become an FBI informant. Why do you all think Withers became involved with the FBI?

[1] Ernest Withers et al., Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History (Norfolk, VA: Chrysler Museum of Art, 2000), 82.


  1. I am so interested to have learned about this. Thank you for sharing, Kate! I actually used the first photo you posted as a primary source in my final paper on the sanitation workers strike. I found that the strike was very well represented in this photo. We can see a group of black men standing outside of Clayborne Temple preparing for what seems to be a very peaceful protest. I liked the simplicity of the photo as a testament to the simplicity of the slogan, "I am a Man".

    While it is impossible to say for sure why Withers became an informant, it seems like he probably would have been under a lot of pressure from local FBI agents. He was a great source because he had access to inside information but was also fairly unsuspecting as just a photo journalist. Based upon this quote, it sounds as if he did not want to become too entangled with the FBI and was protecting the Invaders and other local movements in a way. You raise an interesting point though, Kate. Would he tell the truth about this or is he covering up his previous actions?

  2. I found a comment from the Commercial Appeal's website in their article from 2010 titled "Memphis FBI Agent led cadre of informants that included Ernest Withers," that provides some insight into the situation. Lawrence scribbled notes to prepare himself to tell Withers that his identity had possibly been leaked. He said: "...I could not tell him what to say -- However, IF his confidential relationship with me had been based on and motivated by his concern for the peaceful and effective preservation of the Civil Rights movement ... and that IF his purpose in cooperating with FBI was to detect and deter violence ... and not for mere monetary gain, that he should say so." Lawrence wanted Withers to not deny the claims, but to maintain that he was an informant out of his best interests to keep the movement from turning radical. The article indicates that money was likely a motivation for Withers and the other four black informants in Memphis that provided information to the FBI. The fact that Lawrence indirectly encouraged Withers to deny money as a motivation tells me that money actually was a motivation and Lawrence wanted to preserve the dignity of the FBI's motivations.

    The background of the situation according to the article is also illuminating. Lawrence is described as a white, republican American and one the FBI's "Cold Warriors" under director, J. Edgar Hoover, during the Communist scare. He believed that King was an "irresponsible" leader and radical who encouraged riots.

    All of the information and quotes from my comment can be found at:
    The article was written by Marc Perrusquia for December 19, 2010