Sunday 19 November 2017

US civil rights photographer unmasked as FBI informant

Nick Allen in Los Angeles

One of the most celebrated photographers of the US civil rights era, who was part of Martin Luther King Jr's trusted inner circle, has been posthumously unmasked as an FBI informant.

Ernest Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, took some of the most famous pictures of Dr King, including him riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Known as the "original civil rights photographer", he also captured thousands of images chronicling everyday lives of struggle in the Deep South, along with demonstrations, riots and criminal trials.

One of his most important photographs was taken in 1968 during the Memphis sanitation workers' strike when a crowd stood with placards reading "I Am a Man".

On April 4 that year, Dr King was assassinated on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and Withers was in the room shortly afterwards. Such was his standing that the photographer Joseph Louw, who took a picture on the balcony moments after the shooting, went to Withers to develop the image in his dark room.

But, unknown to Dr King and other civil rights leaders, Withers was also passing photographs of them, their biographical details, summaries of their political beliefs, and even their car licence plate numbers to the government.

He informed on pastors and political candidates and alerted the FBI to planned demonstrations. Withers was at Dr King's funeral where he discovered information, passed on to the FBI, that two men blamed for a previous riot were planning a return to Memphis.

The photographer's FBI role was revealed by a two-year investigation by a Memphis newspaper, which obtained some of his files under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the files Withers was mostly referred to by his informant code number ME 338-R. But an apparent clerical error meant his name was included.

Historians of the civil rights movement described the unmasking as a shocking betrayal and an illustration of how far the then FBI was prepared to go to infiltrate it.(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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