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?