WASHINGTON - Ernest Withers, widely honored in life as one of the foremost photographic chroniclers of the civil rights movement, has posthumously been given an additional title: informant for the FBI.
The source: "Numerous reports reviewed by The Commercial Appeal that reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer who died in 2007 at age 85," Marc Perrusquiareported Sunday in the Memphis newspaper.
"If these allegations are true, I am shocked and extremely disappointed," Dorothy Butler Gilliam, who first worked with Withers in the 1950s, told Journal-isms. "I never had any reason to suspect that he was doing this when we worked together in covering the integration of Central High in Little Rock in l957 or the integration of Ole Miss in l962.
"Nor did any suspicions arise when Syracuse University did a documentary that featured the two of us several years (ago). This material is fresh in my mind and he's been on my mind because I've recently been researching this period and working on a book that would cover black journalists of that era."
Otis Sanford, Commercial Appeal editorial page editor, told Journal-isms Monday that "The reaction has been heavy." Most of it "can be described as shocked, some expressed disappointment that Withers had spied. A few refused to believe it."
Chris Peck, the paper's editor, called the news "astonishing" in his own column on Sunday. "It's a wrinkle in history that speaks for the importance of a free press and good reporting," Peck wrote.
"The family members who survive Ernest Withers never knew he was an informant.
"The people he photographed never knew.
"A man who was a trusted documentarian of the civil rights movement had a secret that may well have altered history and surely will modify his own legacy."
That legacy includes a lifetime achievement award in 2000 from the National Association of Black Journalists; a documentary by activist filmmakerSt. Clair Bourne, the "Freedom's Call" movie mentioned by Gilliam, which featured both of their recollections of covering the movement; books of Withers' photographs; and an exhibit of his civil rights images that toured the United States for at least 10 years.
In reporting the revelation, Perrusquia recalled the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and wrote:
"A veteran freelancer for America's black press, Withers was known as 'the original civil rights photographer,' an insider who'd covered it all, from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death. . . .
"The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they invited in that night was an FBI informant — evidence of how far the agency went to spy on private citizens in Memphis during one of the nation's most volatile periods.
"Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants.
"He later divulged details gleaned at King's funeral in Atlanta, reporting that two Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers blamed for an earlier Beale Street riot planned to return to Memphis 'to resume ... support of sanitation strike' — to stir up more trouble, as the FBI saw it."
In his column, Peck wrote of Withers, "his role as an FBI informant raises two important questions that are relevant today.
"First, the Withers legacy asks us to think again about the wisdom of the U.S. government paying citizens to spy on the rest of us.
"In an age of terrorism, domestic spying seems to be accepted without much discussion.
"But where is the line? That the FBI thought the civil rights movement might be a massive conspiracy to undermine the government and civil order seems provincial and small-minded today.
"But what about spying on Muslims in America?
"How about spying on tea party activists? . . .
"A second question raised by the Withers revelations is a more personal one. Why do men decide to act in ways that may well be damaging to their own reputations, or to the causes in which they believe?
"The questions raised by his secret life as an informant seem as pertinent and nettlesome today as they were 40 years ago."
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