“A Shocking Betrayal”

Industry Perspective

“A Shocking Betrayal”

by Ron Leach

In what a Marquette University Professor deems a “shocking betrayal,” it seems that famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was a paid FBI informant at the same time he befriended high-ranking civil rights leaders and documented their movement on film. Marquette historian Athan Theoharis notes that Withers’ covert spying during the 1960s “speaks to the degree that the FBI was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

The details of Withers’ activities as an informant were recently revealed by the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper at the conclusion of their two-year investigation into how Withers assisted controversial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in monitoring the civil rights movement. Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, captured many of the iconic images of Martin Luther King, including those at the Lorraine Hotel on the night he was assassinated.

Sadly, the newspaper’s investigation found that on the day before the assassination Withers provided the FBI with details about where King was staying and his meeting with a black militant group. Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia writes that FBI reports “reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer.” The newspaper’s investigation found that Withers (who was black) gave the FBI a “front row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.”

Andrew Young, the civil rights organizer who later became Mayor of Atlanta, reacted philosophically to the revelations about Withers: “It’s not surprising,” Young said. “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.”