The story of an African-American photographer who spent 18 years feeding information to the FBI.
Over a 60-year career, Ernest Withers (1922-2007) produced more than 1 million photographs chronicling black life in the South. A “pivotal” contributor to the black press, he seemed an unlikely man to serve as an FBI informant. His powerful images of Martin Luther King Jr., of Emmett Till’s uncle at the trial of his nephew’s killers, and of civil rights and anti-war protests appeared to support the activities and individuals he documented. But as Perrusquia (co-author: The Blood of Innocents: The True Story of Multiple Murders in West Memphis, Arkansas, 2000) argues persuasively, from 1958 to 1976, Withers led a “double life.” A trusted member of the Memphis black community, he was trusted as well by FBI agent William Lawrence, who filled dossiers with photographs and intelligence Withers passed on. As he began his research, the author, an investigative reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, faced opposition from the FBI as well as Withers’ family, who sued to quash the “distorted portrait” that they feared would emerge. Filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the author was met with repeated denials; after agreeing to mediation, the newspaper eventually received hundreds of pages, which Perrusquia has mined fruitfully, along with archival material and scores of interview transcripts. “An Army veteran with conservative views that aligned with most of Middle America when it came to Vietnam and the cold war,” Withers seemed as eager as Lawrence to rout communists from the civil rights and peace movements. Close to King and his circle, he reported to the FBI when King met with Black Power militants. When he covered anti-war demonstrations, protestors welcomed him as a sympathizer, but the FBI used his photographs to identify individuals they had under surveillance. Perrusquia is uncertain about Withers’ motivation—“money, patriotism” or “his long ambition to be a cop”—and he sees him, as do many others, as a hero who publicized the realities of activist movements.
A fast-paced story of a man at the center of turbulence and paranoia.