Lauterbach (Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, 2015, etc.) examines the life of a noted African-American photographer who also worked as an informant for the FBI during the peak of the civil rights movement.
Ernest Withers (1922-2007) documented black life in Bluff City—Memphis, Tennessee, that is—as thoroughly as Addison Scurlock did in Washington, D.C., and James Van Der Zee in Harlem. “He covered the 1960s,” writes the author, “as Mathew Brady covered the 1860s.” Brady was wider ranging, but there’s no denying that Withers caught some signally important moments in the city’s history, including Elvis Presley visiting a black nightclub in June 1954, “the last month of anonymity in Elvis Presley’s existence.” Self-taught and aware of the difficulties of making a living with his camera, having worked mostly the funeral circuit, Withers became a police officer in the late 1940s after returning from service in World War II to a Memphis that, sharply divided on color lines and run by a racist white known as “Boss Crump,” was making tentative steps toward allowing black officers to work in black neighborhoods—in Withers’ case, on Memphis’ famed Beale Street. It was a time when the NAACP and other civil rights organizations worked to secretly register black voters, and some unknown person in the FBI’s Memphis office “identified Withers as a potential informant on criminal cases.” In the guise of working as a photographer, Withers recorded Martin Luther King Jr. on several occasions, including the sanitation workers’ strike at the very end of King’s life. Lauterbach is perhaps a touch forgiving of Withers’ apparent motivation, his fears that young blacks would “get a distorted view of society and are engaging in and experiencing a socialist-oriented ‘beatnik’ type experience for which they are educationally, emotionally, and culturally ill-equipped to deal," as one white FBI agent put it.
Will appeal to students of civil rights history and the FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts.