Famed Civil Rights Photographer Exposed As F.B.I. Informant

Famed Civil Rights Photographer Exposed As F.B.I. Informant

Ernest C. Withers Provided Information On Civil Rights Leaders

The history of the American civil rights movement was thrown a curve ball last week. Last Sunday, the Memphis Commercial Appeal published the results of a lengthy investigation proving that Ernest C. Withers, one of the most celebrated photographers of the civil rights era, also worked as a paid informant for the F.B.I., and used his position as a movement insider to provide detailed information about high-ranking civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Considered one of the most important photojournalists of his era, Ernest C. Withers was a veteran of the black press, and photographed many key moments in the history of the American South. The above photo, which was scanned to digital for preservation by the Smithsonian, was taken by Withers as he, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. rode on one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. The photographer was even in Dr. King’s hotel room on the night King was assassinated. Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, engendered a deep trust among civil rights leaders like Dr. King. They never knew that the man known as the “original civil rights photographer” was providing the F.B.I. with scheduling details, photographs, and biographical information of the civil rights movement’s key players.

While the details of Withers’s relationship with the F.B.I. remain unclear, it is certain that the photographer worked for at least two years (from 1968 to 1970) with Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, both F.B.I. agents from the bureau’s Memphis domestic surveillance program. Withers’s motives for becoming an informant are not known; Withers’s supporters have maintained that he would not have committed such a betrayal for financial reasons, but others have suggested that Withers needed extra money to support his eight children.

The F.B.I. keeps files on all informants, but has refused to release Withers’s file, which may contain information about his recruitment and his remuneration. However, some F.B.I. reports that link Withers to the bureau were obtained by the Memphis Commercial Appeal under the Freedom of Information Act, and scanned to digital for posting on the paper’s website.

To view those documents, click here.

To view a gallery of Withers’s photographs that have been scanned to digital, click here.

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