The FBI mole at Dr Martin Luther King's right hand

The man who took definitive pictures of the civil rights era has been unmasked as an informant

A photographer who captured intimate images of iconic moments in the history of the US civil rights struggle has been revealed as an informant for the FBI. As the undeclared doyenne of black press photographers in the 1960s in the American South, Ernest Withers, who had a shop front in Memphis, Tennessee, was able to photograph Dr Martin Luther King and the innermost circles of the leadership.

When King was assassinated in 1968 after arriving in Memphis to support a strike by the city cleaning crews, it was Withers who found himself inside the Lorraine Motel photographing the blood on the floor.

He first got notice as the photographer present through the 1955 trial of the killers of Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. It was Till's death that arguably first ignited the civil rights movement. That image of King riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama – Withers took it.

Withers, who died aged 85 in 2007, became known as the "original civil rights photographer". His family was recently exploring plans to open a museum in his name. But the respect and the affection he earned risks now being tainted. The FBI, led then by J Edgar Hoover, had another moniker for him – a "racial informant".

Details of his alleged moonlighting as an FBI mole were published by The Commercial Appeal, the main Memphis newspaper, after what it said had been a two-year investigation. It acquired FBI reports of its dealings with an agent called ME 338-R after lodging a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Apparent clerical mistakes committed by the FBI at the time meant that the paper could confirm that ME 338-R was in fact Withers.

The papers showed that, from 1968 to 1970 at least, Withers was passing on assorted nuggets about top activists who had given him their trust to FBI agents in Memphis, including everything from details about plans for upcoming marches, the political utterances of leaders like King and even licence-plate numbers. His usefulness was noted in one report that described him as "most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community".

A daughter of the photographer told the newspaper that its investigation was not conclusive. Rosalind Withers said, "My father's not here to defend himself. That is a very, very strong, strong accusation."

The reports are as much a surprise to surviving activists from the era as it is for the family. "If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship," said the Rev James Lawson, a retired minister who organised civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Joseph Lowery, who was a close confidant of King, agreed that it would "have been an act of betrayal". But he added that we "never had any information that was sensitive. We never did anything that was covert. We didn't plan ambushes... He was just playing the FBI for a sucker. What was he going to give them that would be useful?"

Andrew Young, a leading figure of the movement who later became Mayor of Atlanta, also cautioned against over-reacting, saying that there was little to hide from the FBI anyway. "I always liked him because he was a good photographer. I don't think Dr King would have minded him making a little money on the side," he told The Commercial Appeal.

Nor was it any secret to anyone that the FBI was snooping, and more. A programme called Cointelpro launched in the 1950s initially to trail and also, if possible, discredit members of the Communist Party, had been shifting its focus to civil rights activists through the 1960s. It was under its umbrella that the FBI pursued its campaign not just to keep tabs on King but to discredit him.

But the extent of Withers' co-operation with the FBI may nonetheless be surprising. It seems he even passed on details of conversations between activists at King's funeral about what support should still be given to the striking Memphis workers.

"It's something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes," said D'Army Bailey, a retired judge and former activist who was himself watched by the FBI.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there