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?


  1. Personally, I feel that at the time, when the government was basically playing both sides in many cases, that informing the FBI was not necessarily a good idea. However, perhaps he could have been building trust with the government. Who knows? I wish we would have been able to find out his motives before we could render a verdict as to why he did it.

  2. Along the lines of your building trust idea, that could be possible. He may have been building trust with the government so that he and his civil rights friends could later request government favors. However, given government involvement in civil rights, like we talked about a couple days ago, I am willing to throw this option out.
    I'm not sure if informing was a good idea either, but without a motive we really can't tell.

  3. I don't necessarily think informing the government was such a terrible idea. In the article, it seemed as if he was mainly spying on dangerous men in Memphis. Although he was tipping the FBI about meetings and such, it seems a little harsh to place blame on him for King's death. And I also doubt he was doing it so he could later request government favors, but I definitely think he could be trying to gain some trust.

  4. Jake, I was not trying to say that Withers is at all to blame for King's death. I apologize if that's how it sounded. However, I also don't agree that he was only spying on "dangerous men," unless you think King is dangerous; in the article it does say he was alerting the FBI of King's actions the day before his death. I don't believe the FBI is behind James Earl Ray, nor do I see any consequences from the FBI given to King because of the information. Still, he was spied on.
    Jake would you consider King a "dangerous man?" And I'm not trying to discredit what you said. I'm really just curious; maybe from the government perspective he was dangerous. Who knows.

  5. No I certainly don't consider King a dangerous man since he was one of the most important leaders of the non-violence civil rights movement. On the other hand, I can definitely see how the FBI would consider him dangerous to the status quo. The FBI probably consisted of mostly white men who weren't all that fond of equal rights for all races. Now I'm not implying that they were behind James Earl Ray either, but I'm sure they didn't think he was angel sent from heaven.

  6. I think as always, the FBI was just being paranoid. The agency tracked hundreds of innocent and harmless people, just because they could be communist. Take for an example, Margaret Bush Wilson:,0

    It makes sense after reading about the FBI tracking Wilson, that King would be tracked, as he was more prominent in the movement as a whole.
    I think I'm more asking whether or not you would be okay with a close friend "ratting you out" to the FBI. Thoughts?

  7. It seems to me, that even though Withers was known to be an racial informant of the FBI, his actions as a photographer that helped the civil rights movement speak very loudly. I mean the iconic images he took of Emmett Till and the integration of Little Rock 9 brought intense awareness to the issues at hand. I just think a man willing to help a cause so tremendously, would have hurt the Civil Rights movement much more if he actually had wrong intentions. Even those who were around him claimed his genuine intentions for the cause. Perhaps it is easier to look at it with less judgement because Mr. Withers is no longer alive, but I feel as if his reputation should not have to pay for his involvement with the FBI.

  8. This also raises questions about how the FBI contacted Withers and convinced him to get on board with their Civil Rights investigations. Withers was obviously quite close to many of the movement's closest leaders and held close personal friendships with them. If he was not immune to pressure from the FBI, then who was? And if the FBI approached Withers, then they must have approached many like him in cities across America. Could there have been other like Withers, men and women close to the movement but for reason willing (or somehow pressured) into cooperation? While we will probably have to wait some years for the FBI to declassify these files, the implications for the history of the Civil Rights Movement could be far reaching. The entire historiography of the movement may be called into question if some of the movement's greatest figures and most trusted friends were secretly working with the government. It is certainly something to think about.