Are you f'ing kidding me???

Jef Jaisun jaisunphoto@COMCAST.NET
Tue Sep 14 02:08:59 EDT 2010

Color me completely speechless.

Civil-rights photographer was spy for FBI, files show

An unsettling asterisk must be added to the legacy of Ernest C.
Withers, one of the most celebrated photographers of the civil-rights
era: He was a paid FBI informant.

On Sunday, The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis published the
results of a two-year investigation that showed Withers, who died in
2007 at age 85, had collaborated closely with two FBI agents in the
1960s to keep tabs on the civil-rights movement. It was an
astonishing revelation about a former police officer nicknamed the
"Original Civil Rights Photographer," famous in part for the trust he
had engendered among high-ranking civil-rights leaders, including King.

"It is an amazing betrayal," said Athan Theoharis, a historian at
Marquette University who has written books about the FBI. "It really
speaks to the degree that the FBI was able to engage individuals
within the civil-rights movement. This man was so well trusted."

 From at least 1968 to 1970, Withers, who was black, provided
photographs, biographical information and scheduling details to
Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, two FBI agents in the bureau's
Memphis domestic surveillance program, according to numerous reports
summarizing their meetings. The reports were obtained by the
newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act and posted on its website.

A clerical error appears to have allowed for Withers' identity to be
divulged: In most cases in the reports, references to Withers and his
informant number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. But in several
locations, the FBI appears to have forgotten to hide them. The FBI
said Monday that it was not clear what had caused the lapse in
privacy and was looking into the incident.

Civil-rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture
of dismay, sadness and disbelief. "If this is true, then Ernie abused
our friendship," said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired
minister who organized civil-rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Others were more forgiving. "It's not surprising," said Andrew Young,
a civil-rights organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta. "We knew
that everything we did was bugged, although we didn't suspect Withers

Many details of Withers' relationship with the FBI remain unknown.
The bureau keeps files on all informants but has declined repeated
requests to release Withers', which would presumably explain how much
he was paid by the FBI, how he was recruited and how long he served
as an informant.

At the time of his death, Withers had the largest catalog of any
individual photographer covering the civil-rights movement in the
South, said Tony Decaneas, the owner of the Panopticon Gallery in
Boston, the exclusive agent for Withers. His photographs have been
collected in four books, and his family was planning to open a museum
and name it after him.

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, Withers was also meeting regularly with the
FBI agents, disclosing details about plans for marches and political
beliefs of the leaders, even personal information like the leaders'
car-tag numbers.

David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written
biographies of King, said many civil-rights workers gave confidential
interviews to the FBI and CIA, and were automatically classified as
"informants." The difference, Garrow said, is the evidence that
Withers was being paid.

Although Withers' motivation is not known, Garrow said informants
were rarely motivated by the financial compensation, which "wasn't
enough money to live on." But Marc Perrusquia, who wrote the article
for The Commercial Appeal, noted that Withers had eight children and
might have struggled to support them.

One daughter of Withers, Rosalind Withers, told local news
organizations that she did not find the report conclusive.

"This is the first time I've heard of this in my life," Withers told
The Commercial Appeal. "My father's not here to defend himself. That
is a very, very strong, strong accusation."

Other children of Withers did not respond to requests for comment.

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