Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ernest Withers - Friend or Foe?

Please read this article in association with this post:

Ernest Withers, one of the most notable photographers of the American Civil Rights Movement and a Memphis native, passed away just a couple years ago. He photographed the segregated South, the Negro baseball league and even the Memphis blues scene. He often traveled around with Martin Luther King Jr. and brought national attention to civil rights with his photos. He covered the murder of Emmett Till, the Little Rock Nine integration day and finally the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On the day of the assassination, Withers was behind the police lines; after all, he had travelled with King and was friends with everyone there at the time of the shooting. Little did all his friends know that just the day before, he had been following King around, and informing the FBI of possible meetings and King’s other activities. While the FBI had many informants, none were as covert as Withers. He was able to go anywhere; he was black, and he had a professional purpose for going to meetings and events.

While nobody, besides the FBI, yet knows the details of Wither’s leaks to the FBI, we now have evidence that he was a hired agent. The FBI accidentally leaked a bit of information with his informant number and the pieces were all linked together. Many questioned what was to become of Wither’s reputation after the leak. Would he be a hated man now? Would King care that he had been informing the FBI? According to interviews with friends and family, Withers is still held in very high regard. Reverend James Lawson is even quoted as saying, "It won't tarnish his memory for his family and friends.'' Most believe he did the informing innocently, that he just needed a little extra money; he did not mean to harm anyone.

If he were still alive, would people feel the same way? It is much easier to say that you have no hard feelings towards a dead man. But if he were alive, I think that Ernest Withers would have a lot of explaining to do to some people. Would they question his motives? Would they tell him that he destroyed their plans? Would his best friends hate him? We obviously can’t answer these questions now, but it does give us a few things to think about.

How would you react if you found out your friend and confidant was actually a government spy? Do you think Withers acted morally in informing the government?

A Friend's Frustration on April 4, 1968

Over the course of a weekend, some friends started talking to me about their experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. One friend in particular had an interesting view to share with me. Most people think that after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, black and white Americans lived in harmony in the majority of the country. However, while on normal days they could live together in perfect harmony; this was not the case on that devastating day.

My friend attended a state university, where many of their friends were of different races or ethnicities. One of their best friends happened to be black. As soon as the news of the assassination rang through the halls of the state university's campus, African American students began to march in tribute to his life and the work he did to improve upon the lives of African Americans. Now, my friend is as racially accepting as they come, and was proud to support the SNCC (they even have a button) as well as support their friends who were fighting to obtain equal rights for themselves and their families. Naturally, my friend and some other white folks wanted to show their solidarity and wanted to march alongside their black friends on April 4, 1986, the day Martin Luther King Jr. passed away.

However, when my friend arrived in the middle of campus and walked over to his/her best friend and attempted to march right beside her, the friend told her to go away, that they did not want whites to march with them. Immediately, my friend was hurt and confused. Was it their finger that pulled the trigger? Did they tell James Earl Ray to kill him? No! So, why could they not march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life? It was not as if the entire Caucasian race killed the civil rights leader, it was one man who pulled that trigger. My friend was angry with James Earl Ray just as much as the African Americans.

Angry with their black friends, my friend and other white students at this state university argued with the African American students until finally they understood that these white folks on campus, they were on the same side. They had fought with you, and they hated James Earl Ray too (of course they did not know it was him yet). Finally their friends allowed them to march alongside them, but it did not completely alleviate the confusion and pain that African Americans caused when they denied my friend, among others, the opportunity to march together earlier that day. After all, Martin Luther King Jr.'s entire life was about interactions with different races, would he want this separation on his death day?

I thought this was very different than what most people hear. Usually it’s all about how people march together every year in Memphis in King’s honor. But this shows just how much hurting there was that day. And it was not all anger on the part of African Americans, which is contrary to most beliefs.

What are your thoughts on this side of the story? How would you feel in the same situation? What would you have done if you were my friend? What would you have done if you were thier black friend?

Sunday, September 19, 2010


We've begun our discussion of the role nonviolence played in the movement. What are your thoughts about this particular tactic?