Black People : Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement

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  1. Amnat77

    Amnat77 Well-Known Member MEMBER

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    By Marc Perrusquia
    Published Sunday, September 12, 2010



    [​IMG]

    By Marc Perrusquia
    Published Sunday, September 12, 2010

    Chronicler and informant: Ernest C. Withers is shown in 1968 in front of his Beale Street studio. That same year, the respected chronicler of the civil rights era passed photographs and information to a now-defunct wing of the FBI that was spying on Americans. (© Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, Boston, Mass.)

    At the top of the stairs he saw the blood, a large pool of it, splashed across the balcony like a grisly, abstract painting. Instinctively, Ernest Withers raised his camera. This wasn't just a murder. This was history.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here a few hours earlier chatting with aides when a sniper squeezed off a shot from a hunting rifle.

    Now, as night set over Memphis, Withers was on the story.

    Slipping past a police barricade, the enterprising Beale Street newsman made his way to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel -- King's room -- and walked in. Ralph Abernathy and the others hardly blinked. After all, this was Ernest C. Withers. He'd marched with King, and sat in on some of the movement's sensitive strategy meetings.

    A veteran freelancer for America's black press, Withers was known as "the original civil rights photographer," an insider who'd covered it all, from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.

    As other journalists languished in the Lorraine courtyard, Withers' camera captured the scene:

    Bernard Lee, tie undone, looking weary yet fiery.

    Andrew Young raising his palm to keep order.

    Ben Hooks and Harold Middlebrook gazing pensively as King's briefcase sits nearby, opened, as if awaiting his return.

    The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they invited in that night was an FBI informant -- evidence of how far the agency went to spy on private citizens in Memphis during one of the nation's most volatile periods.

    Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants.

    He later divulged details gleaned at King's funeral in Atlanta, reporting that two Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers blamed for an earlier Beale Street riot planned to return to Memphis "to resume ... support of sanitation strike'' -- to stir up more trouble, as the FBI saw it.

    The April 10, 1968, report, which identifies Withers only by his confidential informant number -- ME 338-R -- is among numerous reports reviewed by The Commercial Appeal that reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer who died in 2007 at age 85.

    Those reports portray Withers as a prolific informant who, from at least 1968 until 1970, passed on tips and photographs detailing an insider's view of politics, business and everyday life in Memphis' black community.

    As a foot soldier in J. Edgar Hoover's domestic intelligence program, Withers helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.

    Much of his undercover work helped the FBI break up the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled militant group that became popular in disaffected black Memphis in the late 1960s and was feared by city leaders.

    Yet, Withers focused on mainstream Memphians as well.

    Personal and professional details of Church of God in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson (then a pastor with a popular radio show), real estate agent O.W. Pickett, politician O. Z. Evers and others plumped FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on militancy.

    When community leader Jerry Fanion took cigarettes to jailed Invaders, agents took note. Agents wrote reports when Catholic Father Charles Mahoney befriended an Invader, when car dealer John T. Fisher offered jobs to militants, when Rev. James Lawson planned a trip to Czechoslovakia and when a schoolteacher loaned his car to a suspected radical.

    Each report has a common thread -- Withers.

    As a so-called racial informant -- one who monitored race-related politics and "hate'' organizations -- Withers fed agents a steady flow of information.

    Records indicate he snapped and handed over photos of St. Patrick Catholic Church priests who supported the city's striking sanitation workers; he monitored political candidates, jotted down auto tag numbers for agents, and once turned over a picture of an employee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said to be "one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups." In an interview this year, that worker said she came within a hearing of losing her job.

    "It's something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes,'' said D'Army Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former activist who came under FBI scrutiny in the '60s. The spying touched a nerve in black America and created mistrust that many still struggle with 40 years later.

    "Once that trust is shattered that doesn't go away,'' Bailey said.

    In addition to spying on citizens, Hoover's FBI ran a covert operation, called COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence or "dirty tricks'' program that attempted to disrupt radical movements. It did this with tactics such as leaking embarrassing details to the news media, targeting individuals with radical views for prosecution or trying to get them fired from jobs. First launched in the 1950s to fight communism, by 1967 it was aimed at a range of civil rights leaders and organizations deemed to be threats to national security. Congressional inquiries later exposed it for widespread abuse of personal and political freedoms, including a fierce campaign against King.

    Yet much of the detail of the FBI's domestic spying, including the inner workings of its informant network in Memphis, remain untold. Tracing Withers' steps through thousands of pages of federal records reveals substantial new details about the extent of the FBI's surveillance of private citizens.

    In Withers, who ran a popular Beale Street photography studio frequented by the powerful and ordinary alike, the FBI found a super-informant, one who, according to an FBI report, proved "most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community.''

    "He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,'' said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper's findings.

    Many political informants from the civil rights era were unwitting, unpaid dupes. Yet Withers, who was assigned a racial informant number and produced a large volume of confidential reports, fits the profile of a closely supervised, paid informant, experts say.

    "It would be shocking to me that he wasn't paid,'' said Theoharis, author of the books "Spying on Americans" and "The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition".

    "Once you get to this level if you're a criminal informant versus a source of information they're at a higher level. They're controlled. They're supervised,'' said Theoharis, who discerns a valuable lesson in the revelation of Withers' political spying.

    "It speaks to the problem of secrecy. The government is able to do things in the shadows that are really questionable. That goes to the heart of our (democratic) society.''

    It's uncertain what impact the revelation will have on Withers' legacy. The photographer was lionized in the final years of his life. Four books of his photography were published, exhibits of his work made international tours and a building on Beale Street was named for him. Congressman Steve Cohen proposed a yet-unfunded $396,000 earmark for a museum, set to open next month, to preserve Withers' archives.

    Yet, even 40 years after the fact, the FBI still aggressively guards the secret of Withers' activities. The one record that would pinpoint the breadth and detail of his undercover work -- his informant file -- remains sealed. The Justice Department has twice rejected the newspaper's Freedom of Information requests to copy that file, and won't even acknowledge the file exists.

    Responding to the newspaper's requests, the government instead released 369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted Withers -- by then a state employee who was taking payoffs -- carefully redacting references to informants -- with one notable exception.

    Censors overlooked a single reference to Withers' informant number. That number, in turn, unlocked the secret of the photographer's 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released under FOIA 30 years ago. Those reports -- more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI's files on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 probe of the Invaders -- at times pinpoint specific actions by Withers and in other instances show he was one of several informants contributing details.

    Witness accounts and Withers' own photos provided further corroborating details.

    "This is the first time I've heard of this in my life,'' said daughter Rosalind Withers, trustee of her father's photo collection, who said she wants to see documentation before commenting at length.

    "My father's not here to defend himself. That is a very, very, strong, strong accusation. "

    A son, Rome Withers, who runs his own Memphis photography business, said he, too, was unaware of his father's secret FBI work, but doesn't believe it diminishes his courageous work documenting the civil rights movement.

    "He had been harassed, beaten, shot at. He was a victim'' who often faced hostile mobs and violent police forces. "At that time, when you are the only black on the scene, you're in an intimidating state.''

    Andrew Young, now 78, said he isn't bothered that Withers secretly worked as an informant while snapping civil rights history.

    "I always liked him because he was a good photographer. And he was always (around)," he said. Young viewed Withers as an important publicity tool because his work often appeared in Jet magazine and other high-profile publications. The movement was transparent and didn't have anything to hide anyway, he said.

    "I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side.''

    * * *

    There was a time in 1968 and 1969 when Lance "Sweet Willie Wine'' Watson was considered the most dangerous man in Memphis. As "prime minister'' of the Invaders, a self-styled militant organization whose rhetoric included overthrowing the government, Watson frightened black and white Memphians alike. The FBI assembled a huge file on him.

    Today, Watson, who goes by the name Suhkara Yahweh, is more conciliatory. He runs a community development organization in his impoverished South Memphis neighborhood and ministers to youths and the needy.

    Still, he decorates his living room with mementos: A bumper sticker reading "**** the Army, Join the Invaders''; a glass case containing a military-styled jacket with "Invaders'' emblazoned on the back; and a portrait of Ernest Withers displayed prominently over his fireplace.

    "That's my daddy,'' Yahweh, 71, said one afternoon last winter, relating how Withers often gave him money and advice.

    "If he was (an informant) I don't know anything about it ... He would call me his son. Right now, I'm still part of the family. I talked to Rome (son Andrew Jerome Withers) just the other day. I talked to (Ernest) on his death bed.''

    It's a testament to the FBI's effectiveness that the dreaded "Willie Wine'' had no clue that Withers was constantly informing on him.

    Wine was in Atlanta possibly to "con'' money out of the SCLC, reports indicate the informant told agents. He reported Wine's girlfriend was pregnant; that Wine was a thief. That Wine and his cohorts had cat-called voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer at a gathering at old Club Paradise.



    http://m.commercialappeal.com/news/2010/sep/12/photographer-ernest-withers-fbi-informant/
     
  2. Amnat77

    Amnat77 Well-Known Member MEMBER

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  3. Khasm13

    Khasm13 STAFF STAFF

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    classic example of a house negro.....smh

    one love
    khasm
     
  4. Full Speed

    Full Speed Well-Known Member MEMBER

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    It seems that Mr. Withers was but one of many informants. It seems that he was just the most active and had the most access to the many different settings that encompassed the struggle. This makes it clear that in whatever we do, there will be spies among us.

    While groups that employed militant tactics and plans or thoughts of forcefully overthowing the government like The Invaders, and The Black Panthers where being dismantled from the inside out, the non-violent tactics of MLK where effective and successful even under FBI surveillance and the "dirty tricks" of COINTELLPRO. The tactics of MLK and the non-violent CRM did not need secrecy, but were based on exposure of both their activities as well as exposing what was being done to us. They had nothing to hide, therefore surveillance revealed nothing that could prevent them from acheiving their goals.

    In light of this article, it would be naive' of us to think that we can plan anything in secret. Above board tactics which cannot be connected with illegal or anti-government activities are the only tactics that will be "allowed" to survive and thrive.
     
  5. jamesfrmphilly

    jamesfrmphilly going above and beyond PREMIUM MEMBER

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    do we know why he did it?
     
  6. Full Speed

    Full Speed Well-Known Member MEMBER

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    Until recently, even the people closest to him didn't even know that he HAD did it, much less WHY he did it.


    The FBI and other law enforcement agencies infiltrate and spy on White Supremacy groups as well. On the ID network (Investigation Discovery) there is a show called "Double Life" that commercials for it have been running and I just seen moments ago. Their first show will be about a guy who spied on and infiltrated a hard core White supremacy organization.
     
  7. jamesfrmphilly

    jamesfrmphilly going above and beyond PREMIUM MEMBER

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    as you may know they have ways of putting pressure on people.
    before we condemn the brother too harshly we might ask what would we do if we were in his place.
     
  8. Full Speed

    Full Speed Well-Known Member MEMBER

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    Then you should be in agreement with my post # 4 above.
     
  9. cherryblossom

    cherryblossom Banned MEMBER

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    Mixed reactions to civil rights photographer's FBI ties


    By Krissah Thompson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, September 14, 2010


    ....."It was just par for the course," said Juanita Jones Abernathy, widow of King's close friend Ralph Abernathy. "They could be in strategy sessions, and the FBI had a way of calling almost immediately after they had made plans for something to inform them of what they had planned to do. They would check into hotels, and the FBI was in the room across the aisle."

    "But they kept moving," she said.



    Withers, who died in 2007 at 85, provided photographs, scheduling information and biographical sketches to two FBI agents in Memphis, according to files the Commercial Appeal attained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The photographer was a former police officer, and the Memphis newspaper noted that Withers had eight children and may have needed the money paid to informants to support them.

    The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, knew Withers well and said he is disappointed. The photographer moved freely in the tight circle of King's lieutenants, taking pictures and selling them to black magazines such as Jet and other outlets. He would give the photos free to the ministers who led the movement and could not afford to pay.

    Those pictures have been collected in books and show a rare intimacy with civil rights leaders.

    "He was very close," Lowery said from his home in Atlanta. "He was beloved. I'm surprised and I'm a little disappointed, but I suspect he did it with his tongue in check knowing that he was not doing anything to hurt the movement."

    According to FBI files obtained by the Memphis newspaper during a two-year investigation, Withers worked closely with two FBI agents in the late 1960s.

    "There was nothing he could report on us that would hurt us," Lowery said. "We were not an undercover group. We didn't have any need to hide. We weren't planning any ambushes or surprise attacks. We were quite open with what we were planning to do. We publicized it and invited people to join it. He probably knew that as well as anybody."

    ....COMPLETE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/14/AR2010091404537.html
     
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