Ernest Withers might not be the best-known name of the civil rights movement, but he was its best-known photographer. As a photojournalist, Withers captured incredible images of key moments in American history. From the iconic image of Emmett Till's mutilated body to the now-legendary shot of sanitation workers standing shoulder to shoulder in Memphis, Tennessee, carrying signs that read, "I Am a Man," Withers' photos spread awareness about the injustice of Black America.
But his legacy got a little more complicated in 2010. The Commercial Appeal newspaper, which covers Memphis, discovered Withers essentially lived a double life, having worked as a paid informant for the FBI for years. Was he a traitor to the civil rights movement he so eloquently photographed or is there more to his story?
Ernest Withers took photography lessons in the U.S. Army while he served during World War II in the Pacific Theater. After the war, he worked as a beat cop on Beale Street in his hometown of Memphis as one of the first Black police officers. Thanks to that beat, he was able to photograph some of the soon-to-be-legends in music history, from B.B. King and Aretha Franklin to Ike and Tina Turner.
Withers was prominent in the civil rights movement, too. He was the only photographer to document the entire Emmett Till murder trial, and he captured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy riding the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. He also photographed the "Little Rock Nine" at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957 after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools.
Other noteworthy things in history he captured include the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Medgar Evers' funeral, the Black Panther Party and the Lorraine Motel after MLK's assassination. In all, he took an estimated 1.8 million photos of Black life during his 60-year career.
After Withers died in 2007 from a stroke, Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia started working on Withers' biography for the paper. That's when a former FBI agent told Perrusquia that they never bothered to bug King's meetings because they had Withers. But the informant refused to tell Perrusquia more.
Perrusquia spent years investigating the story, petitioning the FBI with Freedom of Information Act requests to discover the truth of this informant, until, after a lengthy lawsuit, many of Withers' classified records were released. That's when Perrusquia finally determined that Withers, in fact, worked as an informant for the FBI throughout the 1960s.
Why Did the FBI Watch the Civil Rights Movement?
It's still not clear why the FBI was monitoring the movements of civil rights activists, but history has shown that then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed King was influenced by communists. However, Withers' motivations are not understood; some think he was in it for the money to support his family of eight children. Perrusquia determined the FBI paid Withers about $20,000; that's about $170,000 in today's money. Others think he may have had some anti-communist feelings himself, since several of his sons fought in the Vietnam War.
But Withers also had a history of corruption. In 1948, he lost his job as a police officer for bootlegging whiskey, and in 1981, he was also caught up in a cash-for-clemency scandal with a Tennessee judge, where criminals were basically able to buy their way out of prison. Withers testified against the judge, having cut a deal with the state. But even with the stakes that high, he never revealed his work for the FBI.
What Is Ernest Withers' Legacy?
Since the news about Withers being an informant broke in 2010, it's been received with mixed feelings. Some civil rights leaders felt that they were betrayed and their confidence abused. Others, like Ambassador Andrew Young, who was a lieutenant of MLK, told The New Yorker that he's not surprised by Withers' double life because at the time they felt the FBI bugged everything, but they didn't suspect Withers himself.
The late Dr. Manning Marable, who was the founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University and one most prestigious scholars on the Black American experience, also reserved judgment when he spoke to The New Yorker in 2010.
"It's important to remember the time within which he lived, and the inordinate pressure to inform," he said. "The best thing we can say about Withers is that he played a dual role, as an informant who undoubtedly disrupted the movement, but also as a photographer who used his talents on behalf of advocacy, social justice and equality."
Withers is the subject of a new documentary titled "The Picture Taker," which premiered on PBS Jan. 30, 2023. The film, produced and directed by Emmy and Peabody Award winner Phil Bertelsen, includes archival testimony from Withers' FBI supervising agent William Lawrence, plus new interviews with Lawrence's daughter and other civil rights activists who were once close to Withers.
"There is almost no one else in contemporary U.S. history who has chronicled African American life with such depth and intimacy as Ernest Withers," Phil Bertelsen said in a press statement. "We set out to capture the complexity of Withers, from his undeniable accomplishments and contributions to Black history, culture and journalism as a whole, to the underlying question of his work with the FBI and how it impacts that legacy. We wanted to honor Withers' work, his community and the labor of activists by using his photographs to convey the realities of the segregated South for future generations."
Now That's Interesting
While some of Withers' most iconic images were taken of activists during the civil rights movement, he also photographed sports, blues, and rock and roll legends like Elvis Presley, BB King, Jackie Robinson and a 17-year-old Willie Mays. Today his photos are part of the permanent collections of esteemed institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.
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