As we learn more about civil rights movement of the mid 20th century, I am most amazed by the dynamic differences in attitude of black people toward the movement. I suppose I fell victim to the looming ‘master narrative’ that suggests all black people during this time fought vigorously for their rights without violence. I have later discovered that many black people did just that, but some like Mark Sharpe and the Youngers family from ‘Raisin in the Sun' just wanted to find dignity and purpose within the limits of the law. But what I never expected was an Ernest Withers, who marched alongside Dr. King and strategized with James Lawson but also served as an FBI informant.
The ultimate question is why? What in Mr. Withers life was so intense to lead him to sell the secrets of the black community of Memphis and other southern cities? The Commercial Appeal article proposes money or the deep desire to be a part of law enforcement. With Mr. Withers passing three years ago the answer to his motives died with him. But perhaps it was not Withers who sought to harm the black community but the FBI seeking to incise and misuse a prominent photographer. The article suggests that Withers was not the only informant, he simply was the most notable. The FBI took very bold and probably illegal measures to squeeze and humiliate black people to release any and all information. Not to dismiss Withers actions but the FBI was the master puppeteer trying silently and steadily to stay infront of movement to derail any momentum.
The law firm across the street from Wither’s photography studio belonged to Mr. H.T. Lockard. After becoming the president of the Memphis NAACP he began getting regular visits from Mr. Benjamin Lawrence of the FBI. Lockard believed Lawrence was trying to sneakily probe information from him. Lockard never talked much and was never offered money. As soon as he resigned the visits stopped. He knows he was not the only one watched, questioned and sometimes harassed. James Lawson commented he was “not surprised the FBI was clever about entrapping” blacks. The persistence of the FBI and the black informants on their coat tails lead to many ‘successes’, like destroying the Invaders a Black Panther like militant activist group here in Memphis.
Cointelpro is a tactic devised by the FBI to leak embarrassing information and images to discredit prominent black leaders of the community. It evolved into a program that also attempted to get black people fired from their jobs. Pictures leaked to the agency by Withers implied a Ms. Rosetta Miller was aiding Black radicals while serving on the Civil Rights commission in 1958; she was later put on probation and at risk to lose her job. She strongly protests any association with such groups. Similar stories were not uncommon. This ‘dirty tricks’ campaign was originally drafted to weaken the USSR; it seems the idea black people gaining rights was as threatening to American sovereignty as Hitler ‘s communism. Congressional reports later exposed the tactic of unlawful exploitation of individual’s privacy.
Ultimately Withers and others similar were pawns in a much larger invisible chess game ran by the United States government to maintain the status quo. Like the dynamic attitudes and perspectives of black people during this time the opposition was just as dynamic and comprehensive. I tend to image white oppression during the movement engaging in very explicit acts of violence, but it may be the sly backstage acts that prove to be the most devastating for the community and Ernest Withers.
Soure: Comerical Appeal Article "Double Exposure"