By Ivan Greenberg
The recent revelation by the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis that prominent civil rights photojournalist Ernest C. Withers worked for the FBI as a paid informer should not come as a complete surprise. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the FBI spied widely on African-American leaders, organizations, and community life. Withers was one of at least several thousand African-Americans recruited to spy for the government and he circulated within the highest levels of black activism, reporting to the FBI as he also took some of the best pictures of key actors. Withers covered both civil rights and black power groups, getting close to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled organization in Memphis.
There has been wide comment on the Withers case. Most civil rights leaders from the 1960s condemned him and felt betrayed. I would like to address several issues raised by Withers’ collaboration. First, the case offers further evidence of the FBI’s extraordinary animus toward the civil rights movement and efforts for racial justice. Under the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), the section devoted to “black nationalist/hate” carried out some of the most disruptive acts executed in this period to impede social mobilization. There is little doubt that Withers provided information that aided these efforts. The declassified FBI files document he reported on both people and protest and his photographs helped the FBI identify new activists to investigate. He even acted as a spy during King’s funeral in Atlanta by providing intelligence on the on-going Memphis sanitation strike.
While Withers’ photography, which is collected in several books, is recognized as an important visual source for documenting the past, it seems pertinent to ask how his collaboration influenced his vision as a photographer. How was the focus of his lens shaped, if at all, by police employment? When the new Withers Museum opens next month, it will be possible for the public to study the photography and to consider its importance for political intelligence purposes.
The Withers case also raises the issue of state interference with an independent media. In 1976, the U.S. Senate Church Committee documented several ways the FBI tried to manipulate television, newspapers, and radio. While the number of known cases is not large, the Bureau planted false information on political subjects to “friendly” media contacts. In other instances, the FBI refused to cooperate with reporters critical of the Bureau or its Director and in select cases targeted them for hostile surveillance. Under J. Edgar Hoover, agents had posed falsely as reporters. The recruitment of working journalists, like Withers, provided another type of access, which the government exploited to pursue its own conservative political agenda.
Ivan Greenberg is the author of <em>The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties since 1965.