Famed Civil Rights Photographer Worked As FBI Informant

September 14, 2010 8:09 a.m.

Ernest C. Withers, a famed photographer who chronicled the civil rights movement in photographs and was able to sit in on some of the most sensitive strategy meetings, also worked as an informant for the FBI, Memphis’ Commercial Appeal reports.Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was there for all the major events in the movement. The newspaper described him this way:

A veteran freelancer for America’s black press, Withers was known as “the original civil rights photographer,” an insider who’d covered it all, from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.

But according to documents the newspaper obtained via Freedom of Information Act during a two year investigation, Withers was also working for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

According to the documents, Withers followed King the day before his murder and told FBI agents about a meeting King had with suspected black militants and later divulged details he learned at King’s funeral in Atlanta.

The alleged spying took place from at least 1968 until 1970. Withers, according to documents, passed on tips and photographs to the FBI which detailed an insider view of the civil rights movement as well as politics, business and everyday life in Memphis’ African-American community.

“It is an amazing betrayal,” Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University who has written books about the F.B.I. told the New York Times. “It really speaks to the degree that the F.B.I. was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

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