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.” 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?