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Ernest Withers: a great civil rights photographer – and an FBI spy

Mule Train leaves for Washington, Poor People's March, Marks, MS, May 1968
Mule Train leaves for Washington, Poor People's March, Marks, MS, May 1968 Credit:  © Estate of Ernest C. Withers. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The Rev Martin Luther King Jnr sits in a church basement surrounded by a small circle of men in folding chairs. He looks pensive and uneasy – legs tightly crossed, his chin resting ever so slightly on the back of his hand as if lost in thought.

This could have been a scene from a Sunday prayer meeting or a glum visitation before a parishioner’s funeral. But the tension in the soft shadows and the men’s anxious expressions evokes something far more momentous.

Indeed, King was preparing for a high-stakes press conference. It was 1966, and he was deeply troubled by the recent shooting of James Meredith, the black activist who’d famously enrolled at the all-white University of Mississippi four years earlier and who now lay in a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital in grave condition.

The gritty, fly-on-the-wall picture was taken by Ernest C Withers, one of the most celebrated photographers of the civil rights era, and it appears among two dozen of his signed prints now on display at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London.

The exhibition, Ernest C. Withers: Civil Rights and the Memphis Blues, includes classics Withers shot over a 60-year career documenting culture and music in the American south. James Brown, Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley all appear in the collection, alongside photos of King and other leaders of the black freedom struggle – timeless gems made possible by Withers’s incredible access as a trusted civil rights movement insider.

But one critical fact is missing from the publicity for the exhibition, and it is a fact that has had a profound impact on the way Withers’s work is now viewed: he was a paid FBI informant.

I broke this story in 2010, three years after the photographer died at the age of 85. At first, my inquiry – published in a Memphis newspaper – uncovered only a portion of Withers’s secret FBI work. But following a lawsuit that forced the FBI to release hundreds of once-classified photos and documents, I was able to give a much more complete account in a book, A Spy in Canaan. Those records show that from 1958 to 1976, Withers, who was black, received more than $20,000 (as much as $150,000 in today’s money) as a “racial’’ informant helping J Edgar Hoover’s FBI keep a suspicious watch on the movement around Memphis, where the photographer lived.

Memorial March after assassination of MLK, Main St Memphis, April 8, 1968 Credit: © Estate of Ernest C. Withers. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

A gregarious man with a big personality, his FBI duties included monitoring national figures like King and James Forman, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, when they passed through. But his greater value came in helping identify and index the freedom struggle’s anonymous foot soldiers. In doing so, he turned over membership lists, identification photos and details including occupations, addresses, phone numbers, car number plates and accounts of political views and associations – details that helped agents build dossiers and target activists considered troublesome or dangerous.

The records make it clear that as Withers helped the FBI police the movement for agitators, subversives and communists, he assisted in some considerable abuses: livelihoods were jeopardised, phone records were searched without warrants, traffic tickets and criminal charges were issued to keep activists off balance.

In this age of cancel culture, when yesterday’s heroes are readily discarded for failing to measure up to modern expectations, it’s tempting to dismiss Withers as a civil rights charlatan. Yet any honest reckoning of Withers’s dual personas must consider the complexity and paranoia of his time.

Ernest C. Withers in front of his delivery van, 1941 Ford Wagon, late 1940s  Credit: © Estate of Ernest C. Withers. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

These were the spasmodic Sixties. It’s nostalgic today to view the movement as a monolith of like-minded people working for good, but in truth it was greatly splintered with no consensus on the best path. The righteous fight against oppression was laudable but it was frightening, too. Its growing unrest and militancy flamed Cold War fears of Communist insurrection, a worry held not just by government leaders but millions of ordinary Americans, black and white.

That photograph of King in the church illustrates the point. Sitting with the leader of the nonviolent movement are some seemingly unlikely allies: the radical Stokely Carmichael, who helped launch the feared Black Power movement, and Floyd McKissick, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, targeted by the FBI as a black nationalist hate group. King’s allegiances with groups considered extreme was troubling to Hoover, who waged a secret campaign to destroy King. But they worried many others, too, including some of the movement’s more cautious-minded people.

People like Ernest Withers.

Withers was a good 15 to 20 years older than many activists he monitored and, as a former policeman, a firm proponent of law and order. As a result, he was sceptical of methods espoused by King and other proponents of direct action – sit-ins, economic boycotts. A Second World War veteran, the photographer likely was no fan either of King’s decision to come out against the Vietnam War, a move opposed by many black Americans.

So when King, Carmichael, McKissick and others came to Memphis in June 1966 to resume Meredith’s “March Against Fear” after he was wounded by a racist with a rifle, Withers readily assisted the FBI in keeping tabs on the 200-mile journey from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. He relayed streams of backbiting gossip and valuable insight that helped the FBI gauge the potential for disorder.

I Am a Man, Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, TN, 1968 Credit: © Estate of Ernest C. Withers. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

In his defence, the FBI found scores of collaborators in Memphis who helped spy on fellow citizens from time to time. None the less, Withers was a rare and prolific breed – one of just five paid informants helping the FBI monitor the racial strife in Memphis in 1968 when King was assassinated. He was given a code number, ME 338-R, regular assignments and cash. Though he never discussed his informant work at length, it appears he had a special motive: he had eight children to feed.

In the final analysis, we have to take our heroes as they come. Yes, Withers was flawed. Though he undoubtedly betrayed individual confidences, it’s entirely subjective whether he betrayed the movement. King warned in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” of the dangers of devoting one’s self more “to order than to justice”, and by that, Withers arguably may have failed.

But there’s no doubting the lasting power of his images. Photos of King on one of the first integrated buses in Alabama, in 1956, and marching sanitation workers fighting for respect and decent working conditions in 1968, each carrying a placard with a most-basic message: “I AM A MAN” make it hard to question Withers’s commitment to the cause. Indeed, he produced such images again and again, often in the face of threats. Even now they inspire hope.

“I view him as a guy who ran significant risk to photograph and record our history,” Andrew Young, King’s close aide, once said, sticking by Withers. “He always showed up. And that was important to us. Because that helped us get our story out.”

Ernest C Withers: Civil Rights and the Memphis Blues is at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London SW3, until Aug 30; michaelhoppengallery.com. A Spy in Canaan by Marc Perrusquia is published by Melville House