News Out of Memphis

Posted by David Ozanich — 15 Sep 2010

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An interesting, and frankly troubling, story emerged via Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal saying that noted Civil Rights photographer Ernest C. Withers, a close confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists, doubled as an informant for the F.B.I. They describe him:

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 [...] the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.

The New York Times writes this in their in-depth article:

His work shows remarkable intimacy with and access to top civil rights leaders. Friends used to say he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. But while he was growing close to top civil rights leaders, Mr. Withers was also meeting regularly with the F.B.I. agents, disclosing details about plans for marches and political beliefs of the leaders, even personal information like the leaders’ car tag numbers.

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NPR’s report on the story asked these questions:

Regarding his role as an FBI informant, there are more questions than answers. Was he a traitor to the civil rights movement? Or was he still withholding critical information from the FBI? Did he just need the money to support his eight children? Where were his loyalties and what were his goals? "We have to be careful not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water," [Professor Maurice] Berger said on the phone. "In all fairness, we don't know the whole story."

A fascinating story in many ways, it makes one consider the role of trust between photographer and subject. NPR has a slide show of his work.

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