On Ernest Withers

Ernest Withers had a phenomenal memory. Fifty years after he took pictures of life in a segregated city, he could still look in the background of the earliest pictures and pick faces out of the crowds of onlookers. He could name a long gone place by the curtains on the windows or the way the band stand was situated.

He was many things in his long life. But to most people he was defined by what he saw through the view finder of his camera. What he saw was a tumultuous time in our country in the region that was in so many ways the center of the storm.

Withers was never a journalist who claimed he was untouched by that storm. In his long life, he was many things and a photographer and journalist were among those things. So was being an informant for the FBI.

Until I read Marc Perrusquia’s story this weekend in The Commercial Appeal, and an excellent story it is, I had no idea. But with the information some things begin to make sense.

He called me one night while I was working at the CA to talk about his days as a police officer. It wasn’t something he talked about often. But he had been turning up in the paper’s Mid-South Memories column.

It had been 50 years since the first class of black police officers was hired. The accounts from the day didn’t name the officers. Luckily, I had enough sense to listen despite writing another story on deadline and called him back to flesh out a story on the group and what happened to them. Like most of the Class of ’48, as they were known, he didn’t last long.

I asked him about his dismissal and he acknowledged the allegation of taking money from a bootlegger. He said it has been a set up and that the same officer who called him on the carpet had walked past the same bootlegger on Beale Street numerous times without ever lifting a finger to stop him.

He also said something at the time that was important enough to be in the story. Now, it has a different kind of importance.

“Some people are not able to live through transitions without maintaining a sense of anger,” he said. “I just reflect through images of past times.”

His images captured the vitality of a movement that was on its way to changing America forever. Long after we are all dead and gone, the stories of that movement will be told.

The FBI, at the time, was looking for damaging and embarrassing personal information to discredit leaders of a legitimate political movement that FBI founder and director J. Edgar Hoover disagreed with. Not surprisingly, they found it but they couldn’t fully disclose it because they would then have to explain where it came from. So the rumors began to flourish.

Informants were squeezed, cajoled, used and abused and paid. We don’t know which combination applied to Withers who appears to have been paid for his information.

A large part of the job of a reporter is showing up at events. Ernest Withers did that. He was plugged in. There were no doors that weren’t open to him in the movement. It appears that much of what he told his FBI handlers came from public meetings in a segregated city. There were almost certainly black police officers working undercover at some of those same meetings. In some cases, they were exposed and had to leave the meetings. At other times, he appears to have done what he did so well — he just walked into a room to snap pictures and those in the room may have continued talking, thinking a photographer is looking for a good picture and not necessarily listening to what is being said. He was listening.

The FBI files tell not only his story but that of Memphis at a critical moment.

He wasn’t the only journalist giving information to the FBI. The files on Withers make it clear that there were reporters at The Commercial Appeal who were also providing information and were sympathetic to the bureau’s goals including somehow linking The Invaders to The Black Panthers.

The irony is that for years many movement veterans believed some of the Invaders had been FBI informants or worse, that some had provoked violence at the instruction of the FBI.

The FBI records depict a militant group that was loosely organized and only together a short time. One member of the group went to the West Coast sometime after King’s assassination to meet with leaders of the Black Panther Party out of Oakland. That was enough to get the attention of an FBI that quickly became obsessed with the party’s image of guns, Marxist rhetoric and militancy in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

But as undisciplined as the Panthers ultimately became, the Invaders had even less discipline. They didn’t meet for months at a time, according to the FBI records, and just faded away.

The local civil rights establishment tolerated the presence of The Invaders for a brief time before cutting off the paltry funding used to provide them with an office.

It was a time when King, in his final days, has become unpopular within a movement that was questioning whether his continued advocacy of non violent social change was still relevant as well as the wisdom of his public opposition to the Vietnam War. Ultimately King was proved right. But it was a time of great uncertainty in which every concept was questioned.

The dilemma in records like the ones on Ernest Withers and countless others is that they accomplish to some degree the illegal and immoral goal of the FBI. They also are invaluable to a full understanding of the very human forces that shaped a movement the world will not soon forget.

Much like the pictures Ernest Withers took, we ultimately interpret the information for ourselves from the an outlook several decades later that seems so safe and so certain.

One Response to “On Ernest Withers”

  1. GregC29 says:

    I have been really troubled since this story came to light, not for the reason why Withers did this, but more from the aspect of how did it affect the way he documented the events. Was he, in fact, photographing for evidence to present to the authorities? Was he making those he didn't like, look bad in situations? Did he ignore other events to keep it from the authorities? We will never know this. What I had once believed were images from one perspective has now been turned around and presented in a completely different motivation.

    Granted the photos are still important, but just can't be taken as true documentary photos or photojournalism, but more of images through a jaundice eye.

    This reminds me of the photographer that lied to McNairy County jailers that he was a photographer for Mary Winkler's attorneys, just to get access to her and photograph her in jail. His photos appeared in People Magazine.

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