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Wednesday, 15 September 2010


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Why is this sad?

Because the Civil Rights Leaders were "good guys" and did not need investigation by the FBI?

Because photographers should not be informants?

Because he got caught?

Because he might have done it for the money?

Because he betrayed the confidence of his subjects?



I would wait until we hear the whole story. The FBI back then was not above blackmailing and threatening people to get what they wanted. A related phenomenon is happening all over Eastern Europe. As more and more files become declassified, people are starting to learn that their friends and even family members were spying on them for the government. That's terrible of course, but look at it from the informant's point of view. If the Stasi called you in and "suggested" you spy on your neighbor, what would your best strategy be?

I'm not going to say that the FBI was ever at the level of the Stasi, KGB, etc, but they could exert some influence. It wouldn't surprise me if this was a case of that.

There is a great personal story about Ernest Withers on Eric Meola's blog:


We suspect but may never know the full extent of Hoover's FBI involvement in events of that period (they were not just observers). So, were there any repercussions from the knowledge passed on by Withers to the FBI? Certainly open to speculation.

It is possible that he accepted the money from the FBI and only supplied information that was not very sensitive or that was already accessable to the FBI by other means, thereby getting paid by the enemy for doing nothing or maybe sometimes supplying mis-information. Maybe he was the ultimate double agent con man and maybe all this was done with the full knowledge and endorsement of powers that be in the movement.I didn't read anything to refute this.

Although I have to take this info at face value, a small degree of skepticism still remains because of the countless slur and smear campaigns initiated by the likes of the FBI to this very day.

Regardless, his work remains of significant historical importance- work undertaken with a certain degree of reverence.

Being a Brit who was only very small during those times, I cannot really connect to the sense of liberation that I am sure was present among the civil rights movement, and I know very little of it other than reading about Martin Luther King. However, I can only wonder at his motivation. Financial? Some sense that the FBI were morally superior to the civil rights movement? Or was he perhaps entrapped by some secret he had to hide?

When I saw this on the news I immediately wondered if he was a 'double agent', keeping Rev. King and others informed about who the FBI was interested in. Before you judge too harshly, remember that we have seen only one side of the story, the FBI's.

I'm certainly inclined to take a negative view of the FBI investigating domestic political groups, and hence also of people helping them to do so.

It does seem like there is some betrayal of the civil rights leaders who were his friends here (accepting the report as true for purposes of discussion).

Sorry to disagree but we could just as easily be calling the guy a patriot. Or at least human. MLK was no saint and J. Edgar Hoover wasn't the evil demigod he's been portrayed as either. There really were Commie agents at work in Cold War America and they were worth watching. Besides, the FBI (still) plays one against the other and we don't know what threats they were holding over his head in order to get him to spy. So before everyone piles on a dead guy....

" ... FBI documents released to the public have revealed that Withers was a paid FBI informant."

Maybe he wasn't a very good one.

Not being American, I suppose I shouldn't have a say. But it seems to me that life, for you, isn't any less complicated, compromised, self-let-down, than for any of us. From my experience, you have, generally speaking, rather more of a manichean perspective on what life should be than we cynical Europeans, but thing are hardly ever just a case of light and darkness (unless you're Sarah Palin, and/or a single-celled entity). I have no idea of what pressures influenced this gentleman's life, so I can't judge him. Nor should I.

Because the FBI are bad guys ?

That's not a barb, particularly - I don't have a dog in the fight, as a UK subject with somewhat limited understanding of what you folks think of your national institutions. I'm actually just interested in a slightly greater exploration of the moral calculus.

People have to make tough judgements, best, good, all that. I'm not letting him off the hook, but I've seen some of those judgements at what felt like close quarters. Are we certain he did the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reason ?


KeithB makes a good point...sometimes the FBI is the "good guys". We really don't know in this case. But apparently he betrayed the trust of those he worked with.

We also don't know what information he gave to the Feds. Maybe he was feeding them bull. Its happened before.

"was also a traitor to that cause"

Seems like rather a big jump without any real evidence?

Given that everyone involved in that time is gone, how can we possible know what the real situation was other than he was paid by the FBI?

Perhaps he talked with the leader(s) of the movement and thought better him than someone else? Perhaps he was keeping an eye on the FBI for the movement - that is a double agent of sorts.

Unless there is something concrete in the papers that show he betrayed the movement then I think all that's really been brought to light is that he was paid by the FBI.

The more you know about a subject the more you know the press rarely gets it right.



Mike: it is my inner lawyer coming out, but I'd be more comfortable if the word "alleged" were in your description. I'm as far removed from the facts as you can imagine, but your post-obit has a ring of certainty to it that doesn't seem justified by the source you cite. Your link to "Democracy Now" does not contain the supporting information, it just references work done by "The Commercial Appeal" of Memphis, whoever they are. Hey I've got no ax to grind - maybe the dope is rock solid. But my alarm bells go off when we have second generation attribution on one side of the scale, and no facts known on the other. Just give it some thought.

Ben Marks

Sad, indeed, but we don't know Withers' side of the story. Life can get tangled and ugly, and I'll bet the FBI wasn't above some pretty heavy coercion in those days, i.e., not only money.

Traitor or survivor?

Considering the tactics of the FBI in the 60s as well as the overall turmoil of the time saying "no" might have been out of the question.

If anything this should remind us that it's a messy world out there and things aren't always black or white. Luckily looking back on these events I think we can say with reasonable certainty that he had a positive impact on the cause, one that would last long after any information he gave the FBI became useless.

Withers did betray the trust of his friends, but was he "a traitor to the cause" of the civil rights movement? I'm not sure. It's complex, and one would have to know a lot more about what went on, I think.

"He took care of his family, never left his neighborhood or roots, and loved his wife and treated her like the Queen she was."

And Albert Einstein wasn't very good with his hands.

To anyone with an interest in the psychology of betrayal, I recommend: "A Perfect Spy" by John Le Carre.

"Before you judge too harshly, remember that we have seen only one side of the story, the FBI's."

No, if you read the Commercial Appeal article, it's clear the FBI did not mean to put this forward. It was the newspaper that uncovered it. Although you are right, there could be extenuating circumstances we still don't know about.


I changed the wording of the post somewhat. Thanks.


"His reputation might well be tarnished by this." Mike, do you really want to go that far out on the limb?

Dear Frank P,

You can suppose someone *might* say that but only those who are willfully blind, ignorant of the period and the institutions, or partisan beyond rationality would actually say such a thing.

The FBI can be good guys. In that era and in that venue, they were not. This is amply documented. And they used the "Commies under every bed" excuse for the wholesale violation of Americans' rights. It doesn't excuse anything. The abuses of the FBI in that era are so well known and so well documented (and familiar to me personally and directly) that anyone who wants to try to claim that the FBI was on the side of right and patriotism just doesn't know what they're talking about.

That is not to say anything about the situation with Withers. He may have been a willing "traitor to the movement," he may have been coerced by the FBI. (They did that LOTS! Blackmail was Hoover's stock in trade) Withers may even have been "working" the FBI.

But by no stretch of the imagination does the civil rights movement become the bad guys and the FBI the good guys. That's ludicrous.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

May be he thought he was doing the right thing?

Thanks, Ctein, for your comment, which I read just before typing something similar myself.

There is no doubt in my mind that any FBI informant working in the Civil Rights movement was scum. That description also fits many in the FBI itself, including Hoover.

We have some clear evidence that Withers was such an informant, but we don't have the full story, so it is indeed possible that he was coerced, misled, etc., or even that the FBI documents in which his name was not redacted were wrong or fabricated.

But if he was an informant, then he was scum.


Isaac, you say:

"The FBI back then was not above blackmailing and threatening people to get what they wanted."

What is it with the "back then"? Why would anyone think they were not doing such things now, Muslims being their likely targets this time around?

"But by no stretch of the imagination does the civil rights movement become the bad guys and the FBI the good guys."

And vice versa. Haven't we learned yet that you can't paint any person or organization with such a wide brush?

The FBI screwed up and left his name visible? That is the biggest problem I have with this story, though it all lacks credibility. Why is Mr. Withers being so seriously investigated at this point in time?

A 2 year investigation of a guy dead for 3 years; somebody got an ax to grind, so to speak?

I'm sorry, but this seems an effort to denigrate the whole movement. Glen Beck, what are you up to now?

Sorry, there is a very strong odor about this one.

Dear Patrick,

The FBI's abuses are well-documented for the late 60's and early 80's. We can talk from a factual basis.

One can make assumptions about what they might be doing today, but unless you have fact to back it up, it's just hot air.

Mind you, I'm not saying it's not true, I'm saying that absent data it's not even worth the energy to type about. It's just fact-free opinionating.

pax / Ctein

If Andrew Young is quite calm over this, I don't know why we should be all torqued up.

We just don't know the whole story - I'd call this "interesting," but nothing more at this time.

Keep in mind that by 1968, we were not dealing with a Civil Rights movement (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the crowning achievements of that movement,) but rather with a modified, economically-oriented movement. Agreeing with the *policy arguments* of that later movement doesn't make one a saint, and disagreeing doesn't make one a sinner.

Also, by 1968, the do-your-own thing cultural revolution was in full swing, and along with people of of good intentions like Dr. King, there were plenty of charlatans and frankly dangerous people who claimed to be "working for the people."

I'm not defending the repulsive J. Edgar Hoover, but not every FBI surveillance during that time was evil or unwarranted.

And I can tell you that "The Invaders," and even, by 1968, outfits such as SNCC, were not "good guys."

Like the fog of war, the first reports are usually always wrong. Maybe we should leave it to the historians.

The FBI thought MLK was a threat to the fabric of American Society (whatever that is). After he was assassinated they went after John Lennon.

What more do you need to know about the judgment of the organization?

You had to live back then to understand the situation. The established institutions were often the ones sending representatives to block the entrance to schools so blacks could not attend and it was in the name of preserving American values that society promoted segregation.

We learned that institutions were often wrong and that change was needed.

Today, many of the "values" of certain factions who claim a desire to "take back America," are reminiscent of those of the southern governors and institutions of the 60's.

I don’t know what to conclude about Mr. Withers. I am sure we will never know all the facts. I know his photography helped the movement. I think I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

There was an interesting interview on CNN today with Andrew Young. They asked if he felt that Ernest Withers had "betrayed" him and the other leaders of the civil rights movement. He said "No", the movement leaders had emphasized openness and always notified authorities of actions they planned beforehand. If the FBI wanted to pay Ernest Withers to tell them information they could have had by simply asking that was to Mr. Withers benefit but there were no "secrets" for him to reveal. It's hard to be betrayed when you aren't hiding anything.

I've been watching a lot of old Communist block films by people like Andrej Wadja.

One film in particular stands out. It's called "Man of Iron."

A state journalist is sent to infiltrate the Solidarity movement in Gdansk. He's not a particularly evil man, just a cynical, burned out alcoholic.

The problem for the government was that once he arrives in Gdansk, he's so captivated by the dissidents that he begins to feel like a rat. By the end of the film, he's ready to quit his job and live an honest life.

There are a lot of right wing creeps in the United States who like to take photos of leftist protests. Their photos are usually flat out ugly. They're designed to make their subjects look horrible.

Whithers' photos, on the other hand, are anything but. Maybe it's just a testament to the power of the Civil Rights movement that it could elevate the work of even a police stooge.

It would have probably been impossible to take a bad photo of the "I Am a Man" protest, even if you had tried.

"In that era and in that venue, they were not. This is amply documented."

Ctein, this is all true. But the revelation and documentation of the FBI's dirty tricks became public only in the mid-1970s and after.

So, back then, between 1968 and 1970, the period after the death of Dr. King and the rise of the more assertive and violence oriented domestic movements (Weather Underground, SLA etc. etc), its quite possible that Mr. Withers a) thought he was doing the right thing by helping the authorities in the form of the FBI, whom he might reasonably believed (in those years) to be well intentioned and the right people to turn to.

Also, you've got to allow that some of the alternatives to Dr. King and the SCLC, such as the Black Panthers, did at least talk violent resistance. It's reasonable to believe that Mr. Withers might have thought he might be able to help the authorities keep tabs lest any rhetoric he chanced upon became actualized as external violence.

All that being said, anybody who actually knew of the FBI's un-American ways (such as the COINTELPRO operations) and still willingly co-operated was a rat fink.

May I humbly point out that the world is not pure black and pure white. There are great many shades of gray, many more than our cameras and even the most advanced ones can capture and grasp.

Maybe Withers informed on some of the more radical and hotheaded elements of the movement thereby averting a possible public relations disaster? Who knows. I just don't like the fact of how easy some assign good guys and bad guys in this story. The FBI - as with all law enforcement has some bad apples but overall, by and large, are staffed by people willing to put their lives at risk to keep us safe. I am still trying to get my head around the statement that working for the FBI (our government) = traitor... I think you all must watch too many Hollywood movies.

If FBI are bad guys - then he is a traitor.
If FBI are good guys - then he is an agent.

I am from former Soviet Union & we would never call American guy who supplied your secrets to us a traitor.

But he definitely would be a traitor for other Americans.

So for calling one a traitor - you have to choose a side, you can't say FBI is good but this guy is not.

Ow, seems they were bad.
Ctein, thanks for short history course.

People are most often not the saints we wish them to be.

Here in South Africa we are discovering that our liberating freedom fighters in the form of Nelson Mandela and his ANC are little more than a gang of opportunist criminals masquerading as a political party.

Be thankful that this TOP revelation will have little impact on anyone's life. The true colours of the ANC in South Africa will hurt millions of people, and lead to suffering for generations to come.

James Bullard wrote:
"the movement leaders had emphasized openness and always notified authorities of actions they planned beforehand"

Thanks, James, for reporting what to me is the key element of this story.

Andrew Young may never have known (or simply have forgotten having heard) yet another aspect that seems to me to be quite plausible. Ernest Withers may well have gone straight to someone like MLK to report that the FBI had approached him to become an informant. Given that Ernest would have known that the civil rights leaders were already notifying authorities of their plans, he may have reasoned that if the FBI wanted to pay for this same information, he may as well take the money. For all we know he may then have contributed it to the cause or offered to do so but was refused, given his family circumstances.

IAC, the sad element of this story is that the original media reportage once again employed ruthlessly selective filtering to present the sensational aspect of the Withers/FBI relationship while leaving out a key fact. A fact it was left to Andrew Young to supply.

Elementary school is probably too young to teach the ABCs of the "news" branch of the mass media industry, but certainly by high school this should be part of the curriculum of any current events course. Perhaps taught in the same unit as the farcical clown show that is partisan politics.

I think that it's possible to construct an argument that he was not a traitor to the Civil Rights cause, given that the vast majority of the Civil Rights activities occurred before 1968: the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (along with other important voting and nationality acts in 1965) seem to be historically the high water mark. If Ernest Withers' involvement with the FBI is only proven as from 1968 onwards, it would seem to me to be a stretch to say that he betrayed the Civil Rights movement reaching back to the mid or early 60s.

By 1968 the energies of some in the Civil Rights movement were directed to economic rights. Martin Luther King saw the two causes as having a common root, but others did not. By 1968 the Peace Movement appears to be more prominent in daily US discourse than the remnant Civil Rights movement. So, it is indeed possible that Ernest Withers felt that by "helping" the FBI he was not "betraying" his race: maybe he wasn't very left wing? The main picture of him shows him wearing a cap in the pan-African colours, presumably a deliberate and proud choice. I'd acknowledge that he maybe went behind friends' backs (as per the Revd Lawson quote in Mike's caption above).

Of interest too is a possible motivation. Money? Ernest Withers was sacked from the Memphis Police Department in 1951 for accepting bribes (he admitted it, but he was never charged), and again in the mid 70's he was caught taking bribes as an agent of the local alcohol bureau. He put 8 children through college. It is at least reasonable to wonder from where he got the money to do that.

Reading through the comments above, many from people with experience of the time and of Ernest Withers, I'm struck by how many multiple shades of grey there are in the story. Perhaps the truth is equally grey - a documenter of the Civil Rights era, loyal to his race but not to his friends, and happy to make money on both sides of the law?

Dear Mani,

Uhh, the victims are always the first to know of the abuses of those in power. The "establishment" and John and Jenny Middleclass may not have known of the FBI's abuse of the law, the Constitution and due process, but the social movements certainly did.

Doesn't mean we could do anything about it, but, oh my, we knew.

So, incidentally, did many folks at up to the highest levels of government, because Hoover blackmailed them, too!

As an aside, too many people have taken Mike's use of the word "traitor" and just started running with scissors. He said "traitor to the movement." Not "traitor to the US Government." Kinda different issues, doncha think?

pax / Ctein

You could of course argue that not everybody in the Civil Rights movement was a saint.

But you could also argue that the anti-Communist resistence movements in Eastern Europe contained their share of CIA agents, ex Nazis, and gangsters.

That certainly wouldn't justify the East German police state.

I'm surprised people are so willing to apologize to Whithers and the FBI.

If Whithers was an FBI spy, he's the kind of person who makes it that much more difficult for honest photojournalists.

I take a lot of photos of anti-war rallies and various other political activiities and I often get accused of being a police spy.

I'm not but it's certainly reasonable to suspect photographers.

And I'm only talking about the USA. There's little actual danger to your life if you get accused of being a cop in NYC or Washington.

But it's serious business if a photojournalist gets accused of being a government agent in the middle of a war or a conflict zone.

Looks to me (from an Australian perspective, granted) like he was helping keep the Civil Rights movement... civil.
Blocking out the radicals probably helped black Americans tremendously in the long run.

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