I met Withers at a commemorative march for Dr. King on the anniversary of the assassination, April 4, some years ago in Memphis. He saw our banner for the Coalition on Political Assassinations and our call to release the files on Dr. King from the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He was angry and adamant that there was no conspiracy to kill Dr. King and that the files should remain closed to protect Dr. King. Researcher Lyndon Barsten also recalls a visit to Invaders activist Charles Cabbage in Memphis and a call from Withers during his interview to Cabbage. This was before the last appeal trail afforded to James Earl Ray before Judge Joe Brown and Withers was adamant again that Ray should never be afforded any new trials, an opinion that confused Barsten. Now we both know why Withers so angrily opposed the truth being revealed. This recent release to the Commercial Appeal of unredacted records and agent identify numbers that could finally be matched to Withers and then to earlier documents and reports from 30 years ago underlines the need to introduce the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Records Act to effect the release of all the files held by Congress and the Executive Branch agencies, as well as state, local, court and international classified files on the life and death of Dr. King. Our history belongs to us not to those with something to hide so many decades later. COPA is working with the offices of Senator Kerry, Rep. John Lewis and the appropriate House and Senate subcommittees and committees that would hold hearings on and pass such legislation to the floor, years after it was drafted in the 109th Congress by Rep. Cynthia McKinney. The King family, the civil rights leaders still with us, the national African American community and anyone who cherishes the truth and the real hidden history of this country in regard to Dr. King should welcome such a release of files in full. It will unquestionably embarrass and expose the informants who were betraying him far more than it could damage the reputation of Dr. King and reveal his role as a victim and target of a corrupted military-industrial-intelligence complex and a national security state that was treating American citizens as the enemy instead of protecting the Constitution and upholding legal and civil rights. John Judge
Prominent Civil Rights-Era Photographer Was FBI Informant
And newly disclosed records show that one of the most prominent photographers of the civil rights era, Ernest Withers, was also a paid informant for the FBI. According to the
Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Withers worked closely with the FBI to monitor civil rights activists during the 1960s. Withers is said to have provided photographs, background information and scheduling details to two agents in FBI’s Memphis spying office. Withers photographed Dr. Martin Luther King at several marches and was the only photographer to cover the entire trial of those accused in the murder of the black teenager Emmett Till.
In January 2007, months before his death, Amy Goodman interviewed Ernest Withers at his studio in Memphis, Tennessee. He talked about one of his most famous pictures: a mass of striking sanitation workers holding signs reading “I am a man” at what would turn out to be the last march led by Dr. King.
Ernest Withers: “The last march of his, of Martin King, they were lined up there at [inaudible] and Hernando outside of Cleveland Temple Church, and they were there with all those ’I’m a Man’ signs. And I thought it was dramatic and historic in what it was, but I didn’t know it was ending up to be as popular. But it was the last march of Martin King.” Withers’s alleged involvement was revealed because the FBI forgot to redact his name in declassified records discussing his collaboration.
Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement
Memphis Commercial Appeal
By Marc Perrusquia
Published Sunday, September 12, 2010
Chronicler and informant: Ernest C. Withers is shown in 1968 in front of his Beale Street studio. That same year, the respected chronicler of the civil rights era passed photographs and information to a now-defunct wing of the FBI that was spying on Americans. (©
Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, Boston, Mass.)
At the top of the stairs he saw the blood, a large pool of it, splashed across the balcony like a grisly, abstract painting. Instinctively, Ernest Withers raised his camera. This wasn’t just a murder. This was history.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here a few hours earlier chatting with aides when a sniper squeezed off a shot from a hunting rifle. Now, as night set over Memphis, Withers was on the story. Slipping past a police barricade, the enterprising Beale Street newsman made his way to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel — King’s room — and walked in. Ralph Abernathy and the others hardly blinked. After all, this was Ernest C. Withers. He’d marched with King, and sat in on some of the movement’s sensitive strategy meetings.
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.
As other journalists languished in the Lorraine courtyard, Withers’ camera captured the scene:
Bernard Lee, tie undone, looking weary yet fiery. Andrew Young raising his palm to keep order. Ben Hooks and Harold Middlebrook gazing pensively as King’s briefcase sits nearby, opened, as if awaiting his return.
The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they invited in that night was an FBI informant — evidence of how far the agency went to spy on private citizens in Memphis during one of the nation’s most volatile periods.
Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants. He later divulged details gleaned at King’s funeral in Atlanta, reporting that two Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers blamed for an earlier Beale Street riot planned to return to Memphis “to resume … support of sanitation strike” — to stir up more trouble, as the FBI saw it.
The April 10, 1968, report, which identifies Withers only by his confidential informant number — ME 338-R — is among numerous reports reviewed by The Commercial Appeal that reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer who died in 2007 at age 85.
Those reports portray Withers as a prolific informant who, from at least 1968 until 1970, passed on tips and photographs detailing an insider’s view of politics, business and everyday life in Memphis’ black community.
As a foot soldier in J. Edgar Hoover’s domestic intelligence program, Withers helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis.
Much of his undercover work helped the FBI break up the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled militant group that became popular in disaffected black Memphis in the late 1960s and was feared by city leaders.
Yet, Withers focused on mainstream Memphians as well. Personal and professional details of Church of God in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson (then a pastor with a popular radio show), real estate agent O.W. Pickett, politician O. Z. Evers and others plumped FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on militancy.
When community leader Jerry Fanion took cigarettes to jailed Invaders, agents took note.
Agents wrote reports when Catholic Father Charles Mahoney befriended an Invader, when car dealer John T. Fisher offered jobs to militants, when Rev. James Lawson planned a trip to Czechoslovakia and when a schoolteacher loaned his car to a suspected radical.
Each report has a common thread — Withers.
As a so-called racial informant — one who monitored race-related politics and “hate” organizations — Withers fed agents a steady flow of information.
Records indicate he snapped and handed over photos of St. Patrick Catholic Church priests who supported the city’s striking sanitation workers; he monitored political candidates, jotted down auto tag numbers for agents, and once turned over a picture of an employee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said to be “one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.” In an interview this year, that worker said she came within a hearing of losing her job. “It’s something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes,” said D’Army
Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former activist who came under FBI scrutiny in the ’60s. The spying touched a nerve in black America and created mistrust that many still struggle with 40 years later. “Once that trust is shattered that doesn’t go away,” Bailey said.
In addition to spying on citizens, Hoover’s FBI ran a covert operation, called COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence or “dirty tricks” program that attempted to disrupt radical movements. It did this with tactics such as leaking embarrassing details to the news media, targeting individuals with radical views for prosecution or trying to get them fired from jobs. First launched in the 1950s to fight communism, by 1967 it was aimed at a range of civil rights leaders and organizations deemed to be threats to national security. Congressional inquiries later exposed it for widespread abuse of personal and political freedoms, including a fierce campaign against King.
Yet much of the detail of the FBI’s domestic spying, including the inner workings of its informant network in Memphis, remain untold. Tracing Withers’ steps through thousands of pages of federal records reveals substantial new details about the extent of the FBI’s surveillance of private citizens.
In Withers, who ran a popular Beale Street photography studio frequented by the powerful and ordinary alike, the FBI found a super-informant, one who, according to an FBI report, proved “most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community.”
“He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the newspaper’s findings.
Many political informants from the civil rights era were unwitting, unpaid dupes. Yet Withers, who was assigned a racial informant number and produced a large volume of confidential reports, fits the profile of a closely supervised, paid informant, experts say.
“It would be shocking to me that he wasn’t paid,” said Theoharis, author of the books “Spying on Americans” and “The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition”.
“Once you get to this level if you’re a criminal informant versus a source of information they’re at a higher level. They’re controlled. They’re supervised,” said Theoharis, who discerns a valuable lesson in the revelation of Withers’ political spying. “It speaks to the problem of secrecy. The government is able to do things in the shadows that are really questionable. That goes to the heart of our (democratic) society.”
It’s uncertain what impact the revelation will have on Withers’ legacy. The photographer was lionized in the final years of his life. Four books of his photography were published, exhibits of his work made international tours and a building on Beale Street was named for him. Congressman Steve Cohen proposed a yet-unfunded $396,000 earmark for a museum, set to open next month, to preserve Withers’ archives.
Yet, even 40 years after the fact, the FBI still aggressively guards the secret of Withers’ activities. The one record that would pinpoint the breadth and detail of his undercover work — his informant file — remains sealed. The Justice Department has twice rejected the newspaper’s Freedom of Information requests to copy that file, and won’t even acknowledge the file exists.
Responding to the newspaper’s requests, the government instead released 369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted Withers — by then a state employee who was taking payoffs — carefully redacting references to informants — with one notable exception.
Censors overlooked a single reference to Withers’ informant number. That number, in turn, unlocked the secret of the photographer’s 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released under FOIA 30 years ago. Those reports — more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI’s files on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 probe of the Invaders — at times pinpoint specific actions by Withers and in other instances show he was one of several informants contributing details. Witness accounts and Withers’ own photos provided further corroborating details.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of this in my life,” said daughter Rosalind Withers, trustee of her father’s photo collection, who said she wants to see documentation before commenting at length.
“My father’s not here to defend himself. That is a very, very, strong, strong accusation. ”
A son, Rome Withers, who runs his own Memphis photography business, said he, too, was unaware of his father’s secret FBI work, but doesn’t believe it diminishes his courageous work documenting the civil rights movement.
“He had been harassed, beaten, shot at. He was a victim” who often faced hostile mobs and violent police forces. “At that time, when you are the only black on the scene, you’re in an intimidating state.”
Andrew Young, now 78, said he isn’t bothered that Withers secretly worked as an informant while snapping civil rights history.
“I always liked him because he was a good photographer. And he was always (around),” he said. Young viewed Withers as an important publicity tool because his work often appeared in Jet magazine and other high-profile publications. The movement was transparent and didn’t have anything to hide anyway, he said. “I don’t think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side.”
* * *
There was a time in 1968 and 1969 when Lance “Sweet Willie Wine” Watson was considered the most dangerous man in Memphis. As “prime minister” of the Invaders, a self-styled militant organization whose rhetoric included overthrowing the government, Watson frightened black and white Memphians alike. The FBI assembled a huge file on him.
Today, Watson, who goes by the name Suhkara Yahweh, is more conciliatory. He runs a community development organization in his impoverished South Memphis neighborhood and ministers to youths and the needy.
Still, he decorates his living room with mementos: A bumper sticker reading “Damn the Army, Join the Invaders”; a glass case containing a military-styled jacket with “Invaders” emblazoned on the back; and a portrait of Ernest Withers displayed prominently over his fireplace.
“That’s my daddy,” Yahweh, 71, said one afternoon last winter, relating how Withers often gave him money and advice. “If he was (an informant) I don’t know anything about it … He would call me his son. Right now, I’m still part of the family. I talked to Rome (son Andrew Jerome Withers) just the other day. I talked to (Ernest) on his death bed.”
It’s a testament to the FBI’s effectiveness that the dreaded “Willie Wine” had no clue that Withers was constantly informing on him. Wine was in Atlanta possibly to “con” money out of the SCLC, reports indicate the informant told agents. He reported Wine’s girlfriend was pregnant; that Wine was a thief. That Wine and his cohorts had cat-called voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer at a gathering at old Club Paradise.
As informant ME 338-R, Withers had plenty to tell the FBI in November 1968 when Willie Wine and others seized the administration building at LeMoyne-Owen College.
What started as a dispute over student grievances escalated into rebellion when student leaders called in the Invaders and the local chapter of the radical anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society. Withers, who shot pictures of the crisis for Jet and was seen by newsmen going into Brown Lee Hall the night of the takeover, told FBI agents that Wine planned and directed the operation.
ME 338-R said the building was held “in a state of siege” with school president Hollis Price inside, according to a Nov. 27, 1968, FBI report. Although local news accounts made no mention of weapons, the informant said occupants “definitely had a single-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, a rifle with a telescopic sight, a bayonet, at least one Derringer, and one pistol” — details confirmed by another FBI source that night and Willie Wine 42 years later.
“I carried a .25-caliber pistol,” the ex-militant recalled. The only time he used his gun that night was when another Invader rifled through an administrator’s cabinet. “I pulled out my pistol. I said we’re not here for that purpose,” he said. No charges were filed after officials at the private school chose not to prosecute.
Over time, however, the FBI would break the Invaders. Utilizing tips from Withers and other informants plus three undercover Memphis police officers who had infiltrated the group, authorities prosecuted as many as 34 Invaders on charges ranging from petty street crime to arson and the sniper wounding of a police officer.
Although one undercover cop was famously exposed, the Invaders seemed to have little clue about Withers, who often visited the group’s headquarters on Vance and shot publicity photos for them. “Ernest, he was a dear friend,” said Charles Cabbage, who founded the Invaders in 1967.
Like Wine, Cabbage kept a memento on the wall, a picture Withers took in 1968 of Cabbage as a radical. “Anytime he’d see us, he’d start snapping,” Cabbage recalled. Cabbage, interviewed last winter, four months before his death in June at age 66, said he’d come to wonder what Withers was really doing. “C’mon man. We weren’t that interesting. Why would he take our pictures constantly?”
As the FBI cast its net, it encountered a range of people whose beliefs and personal details landed in the bureau’s spy files despite little more than a tangential connection to the Invaders.
An Aug. 7, 1969, report shows the FBI collected 14 photographs of Father Charles Mahoney of St. Patrick Catholic Church. Notations on the report, along with other corroborating details, indicate Withers shot the photos and handed them over to agents.
The report quotes the informant as saying Mahoney “is a close friend” of Invaders defense minister Melvin Smith and notes that Mahoney and two other priests allowed the Invaders to use church facilities.
“The FBI was off base on the civil rights thing,” one of those priests, Charles Martin, said in a recent interview. An urban outreach ministry brought St. Patrick in regular contact with the Invaders. And when the priests there openly supported the sanitation strike, there was a backlash, Martin said.
“We were for the workers, the sanitation workers. And a lot of people in the town didn’t like us for that.”
* * *
The Rev. James M. Lawson came into the FBI’s focus in early 1968 during the height of the sanitation strike. It was Lawson, then pastor at Centenary Methodist, who invited Dr.
King to Memphis, where he spoke in support of 1,100 sanitation workers who had walked off the job to protest low pay and horrid working conditions that led to the deaths of two men.
“If one black person is down, we are all down!” King told 15,000 cheering people at Mason Temple the night of March 18, 1968.
Near the speaker’s podium, the ubiquitous Withers snapped photos. Images he shot that night would stand as timeless icons of the strike alongside those he took of marching sanitation workers carrying “I Am A Man” placards and National Guard troops policing
But the stout photographer with a chatty personality and quick smile had another, nonpublic, appointment that day, a secret meeting in which the topic was his friend, Rev. Lawson. Earlier that afternoon, Withers met with FBI agents Howell Lowe and William H.
Lawrence, who ran the bureau’s Memphis domestic surveillance program. A report summarizing the meeting indicates informant ME 338-R handed over a newsletter listing names and photographs of community leaders behind the strike — a virtual directory of strike-support organizers — and told agents who produced it.
“Informant pointed out that the paper is printed or laid out by Rev. Malcolm D. Blackburn … pastor of Clayborn AME Temple … The main editorial work therein is done by Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.,” the report said.
Withers had a lot to say about Lawson, a veteran civil rights leader and friend who marched during the strike alongside Withers’ wife, Dorothy, and his daughter, Rosalind. He portrayed Lawson as the type of left-leaning radical the government had come to fear — active in the anti-war movement, involved with the feared Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and someone who was planning a trip to the East Bloc nation of Czechoslovakia.
“I’m not surprised,” Lawson, now 81, said this month when told of Withers’ informant work. Lawson said “the police and FBI were very clever about entrapping” blacks and making them informants.
“Any activity in the black community, Ernie was going to be around,” Lawson said. “It was probably done innocently: ‘You just tell us what’s going on and what you see and you get paid for it.’ ” Lawson’s was one of many biographies the informant would flesh out for agents.
Reports linked to Withers show he was a font of information for the FBI during the strike, handing over documents, providing details from strategy meetings, connecting dots between pastors and suspected militants.
The informant told agents on March 6 that young militants — Cabbage among them — passed out literature at a rally at Clayborn Temple with instructions for making Molotov cocktail firebombs. Mainstream leaders “did nothing” to stop them, the report said.
On April 3, the day before King’s murder, the informant passed on details about a high-level strategy session at the Lorraine between Cabbage and King, who begrudgingly decided to give the young militants a role in the strike.
Well into the summer, after the strike was settled, ME 338-R continued to report on its impact. That July 26, the informant gave FBI agents a financial report showing the strike-leadership group, Community on the Move for Equality, had spent $2,600 of $347,000 raised for striking workers to pay attorney’s fees and expenses for members of the militant Black Organizing Project, an umbrella group encompassing the Invaders.
As Hoover cranked up his campaign against “black nationalist hate groups,” anyone giving aid — money, jobs, political support — could fall into the crosshairs of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s dirty tricks campaign.
The FBI had been spying on the civil rights movement for years, but in an August 1967 memo, backed by a more thorough order the following March, the bureau directed
Memphis and other field offices to begin efforts to “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” a range of civil rights leaders and organizations, from the separatist Nation of Islam to King’s moderate SCLC. In May 1968 a similar initiative was launched against the so-called “New Left,” targeting Vietnam War protesters and socialists, among others.
A U.S. Senate investigation in 1975 found widespread abuse in the program, which lacked statutory or executive approval. COINTELPRO techniques ranged from contacting an employer to get a target fired to mailing an anonymous letter to a spouse alleging infidelity, leaking humiliating information to the press, encouraging street warfare between violent groups and alerting state and local authorities to a target’s criminal law violations.
Available records provide few details on specific COINTELPRO actions taken in Memphis. Yet, records indicate Withers fed agents plenty of raw material.
A schoolteacher loaned militant Cabbage his car, the informant said. Mary L. Campbell, a supposed black-power sympathizer, was running for the county Democratic Party’s executive committee. Real estate agent O.W. Pickett, who’d brought food to the Invaders during the LeMoyne takeover, was thinking of running for Congress. Pastor Malcolm Blackburn and activist Baxton Bryant were trying to find jobs for the Invaders.
A May 13, 1968, report indicates Withers gave the FBI two photos of Rosetta Miller, a field worker for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, telling an agent she is “one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.” Following up that fall, an agent typed a two-sentence report memorializing a rumor that Miller had recently married, noting the marriage broke up after just a week. The report was copied to Withers’ informant file.
Interviewed this spring, Miller, who now lives in Nashville, said her job with the commission came into jeopardy in 1968 when supervisors questioned her about ties to radicals. “I was never part of that crap,” she said.
Marquette’s Theoharis, who worked with the Senate committee that exposed many of the FBI’s abuses, said employment sabotage was a particularly insidious COINTELPRO tactic. “Once, (the FBI) got someone dismissed as a Girl Scout leader. It was crazy,” he said.
Records reviewed by the newspaper offered few details of the secretive COINTELPRO initiative. Yet, frustrated by continuing support for the Invaders, the FBI clearly was considering such actions in May 1969 against the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“All sources have been alerted to attempt to pinpoint any actual proof that employees of the AME Church are giving financial support to the Invaders,” said a May 8, 1969, report to headquarters in Washington.
“…If such proof is forthcoming separate communication will be written to the Bureau concerning any possible counterintelligence action which might be instituted with certain AME high church officials in this regard.”
* * *
Available files don’t indicate how or when Withers first teamed with the FBI. But it would have been hard for the bureau to have overlooked him.
Withers served as a city police officer, hired in 1948 along with eight other African Americans who composed MPD’s first black recruit class. He didn’t last long. He was fired in 1951 for taking kickbacks from a bootlegger.
By the early 1950s, Withers was making a name for himself on Beale Street, where he had operated since the mid-40s, chronicling the teeming night life and the everyday life of black Memphis. By night, he hung with bluesmen like B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker and Rufus Thomas and, by day, he shot family portraits, weddings, church socials, political gatherings and sporting events, assembling one of the great Negro League baseball portfolios.
“He knew everybody,” recalled Coby Smith, a political activist who founded the Invaders with Cabbage and who would come to form his own suspicions.
Across the street from Withers’ studio, attorney H.T. Lockard ran a law office. When Lockard became president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP in 1955, a visitor started coming by — Bill Lawrence of the FBI.
In an interview for this story, Lockard, now a 90-year-old retired judge, spoke for the first time about his three-year association with Lawrence, a bespectacled G-man who came to
Memphis in 1945 and ran the bureau’s local domestic intelligence operations in the 1950s and ’60s. In the ’50s, as the Red scare was at its peak, the FBI kept close watch on the NAACP and other civil rights organizations believed susceptible to communist infiltration.
“Because of the nature of the work I was doing, there was a suspicious feeling that I was either a communist or a communist sympathizer,” Lockard said.
Like so many others recruited by the FBI, Lockard said agent Lawrence showed up uninvited and made regular unannounced visits to his law office with no evident purpose. “One stock question was how was I getting along,” he said.
Over a period, the agent asked if a certain suspected communist had joined the local NAACP. Eventually, the man named by Lawrence applied for membership. Lockard said he declined to enroll him.It’s unclear if the FBI considered Lockard an informant. He said he was never paid. The FBI visits stopped in 1957, when Lockard left the NAACP helm, yet he said he developed “an amiable camaraderie” with Lawrence that included exchanging Christmas cards for years after the agent retired in 1970. Lawrence died in 1990. Around the time Lawrence began calling on Lockard, Withers began his long and remarkable career chronicling the civil rights movement.
In 1955, Withers covered the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was beaten, shot and tossed in a river in Money, Miss., for whistling at a white woman.
The injustice of the crime — the defendants, both white, were acquitted by an all-white jury yet later confessed in a paid magazine interview — built the foundation of Withers’ fame. Defying a judge’s order that banned picture-taking during the trial, Withers captured the moment Till’s great-uncle Mose Wright stood up at the witness stand and pointed an accusing finger at the killers. The Till case helped galvanize the movement, and Withers soon had a wide array of assignments covering civil rights.
As a freelancer for the Sengstacke family, publishers of the Chicago Defender and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Withers covered many of the seminal events of the era. He was beaten by police covering Medgar Evers’ 1963 funeral and harassed in small-town Mississippi following the 1964 murders of three Freedom Summer activists in
Neshoba County. He snapped pictures of King and Abernathy riding the first integrated bus in Montgomery in 1956 and photographed King in 1966 casually reclining in his room at the Lorraine where he would die two years later.
Trained in photography in the Army during World War II and equipped with a bulky twin reflex camera, Withers lacked technical skill yet managed to take profoundly powerful images, largely through his resourcefulness and unusual access.
Locally, Withers chronicled all the significant events, the Tent City voter registration drive in Fayette County, the desegregation of Memphis City Schools and the Downtown sit-ins of 1960.
It was around then that the FBI’s Lawrence began showing up at the NAACP offices, recalls Maxine Smith, the organization’s longtime executive director in Memphis.”We thought it was for our protection. We had nothing to hide,” Smith said. “Somewhere along the line we began to suspect” differently, she said.
What Smith and others didn’t know was that by 1963 the FBI had begun wiretapping King, initially because of the civil rights leader’s ties to adviser Stanley Levison, a suspected communist. The FBI tapped King’s phones, bugged his hotel rooms and, in one infamous episode, mailed surreptitious audio recordings including a taped sexual liaison to his Atlanta home along with a letter suggesting he commit suicide.
By 1967, as more-militant wings spun out of the movement, the FBI launched a “ghetto informant program” recruiting “listening posts” within the black community, many of them white shopkeepers and businessmen. Increasingly, headquarters pushed agents like Lawrence to develop information from black leaders.
“He used to come out here a whole lot, right here,” Smith said in the living room of her South Parkway home. Smith told how Lawrence, a music lover, fostered a relationship through her late husband Vasco Smith’s expansive jazz collection. When a 1981 book revealed the couple’s relationship to the FBI, the Smiths sued — and lost. Still passionate about the issue, Smith argues she and her husband were never paid.
“Nobody has ever offered Vasco or me one penny. No one dare say that,” she said. Benjamin Hooks, the former national NAACP director, agreed with her assessment.
“I don’t know if anyone is trying to say they were snitches. If that’s what they’re saying that is a lie,” Hooks said in January, 11 weeks before he died. “You couldn’t stop the FBI from coming and talking to you. If you did, they’d make it up anyway. They were talking to Maxine and Vasco and Hooks all the time.”
When details of the FBI’s domestic spy program later leaked in congressional hearings, officials said there were just five paid racial informants working in Memphis in 1968.
Officials have never disclosed the identities of those informants; it’s unknown if Withers was included in that group.
“I’d like to know who those devils are,” Smith said.
* * *
Perhaps the last man with firsthand knowledge of Withers’ covert life, retired FBI agent Howell Lowe, opted to take his secrets to the grave.
“I won’t have my name connected with this,” Lowe told a reporter last year, rejecting an interview for this story. He died Jan. 1 at age 83. Although Withers had died two years earlier, Lowe said he feared that discussing the photographer’s informant work might harm his survivors.
“Some of the things we did were sleazy. We were fighting what we thought was the possibility of uprising in this country,” Lowe said.
Lost, too, to history are Withers’ motives. A federal source who first told a reporter about the photographer’s secret life several years ago said Withers, who raised eight children and struggled financially, had a primary motive — money.
That same source said Withers’ secret informant status came dangerously close to exposure in 1978 when Congress re-examined the FBI’s investigation of King’s assassination. At the time, revelations about COINTELPRO and the FBI’s treatment of
King caused many Americans to wonder if Hoover’s hatred of the civil rights leader somehow morphed into an assassination plot. The U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations eventually found the FBI had nothing to do with the murder.
Yet, with the FBI’s Memphis office on trial, Lowe’s partner, agent Lawrence, testified before the committee on Nov. 21, 1978, speaking of a valued informant who “provided information on racial matters generally and the Invaders in particular.” The informant, paid up to $200 a month, helped track King in the days before his murder.
Lawrence said he frequently gave his informant instructions ahead of time, giving him names and topics to look out for and conferring almost daily with him during the sanitation strike.
“I would call him if I had occasion to alert him to something,” Lawrence testified.
“Otherwise, I would hope that he would call me, which he frequently did. Then periodically we would meet in person under what we hoped were safe conditions to personally exchange information, go over descriptions, any photographs, things of that nature.”
Was Lawrence discussing Withers? The congressional record is unclear. Nonetheless, as an FBI informant with a symbol number and a large volume of assignments, Withers would have been handled in a similar fashion, experts said.
“These are individuals who are going to be directed and paid… They saw you as a valuable source and a continuing source,” said Theoharis, the retired Marquette professor.
Researchers who study the government informant system say patriotism, desire to do police work, thrill-seeking and money often are motivating factors. Withers had served in the Army in World War II. In addition to serving briefly as a police officer, he ran successfully for Shelby County constable in 1974 and later was appointed a gun-carrying agent of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverages Commission.
Withers’ legal troubles also can’t be discounted as a possible motive. Withers would claim late in life he was set up in the 1951 kickback incident while working for MPD, yet his police personnel file contains transcripts that reveal admissions by Withers and detailed witness accounts supporting the allegations. He was fired but never charged criminally.
Years later, in 1979, he faced similar charges, this time in federal criminal court.
Then-ABC agent Withers pleaded guilty to extorting kickbacks from a nightclub owner.
Regardless of his motives, the revelation of Withers’ FBI work doesn’t harm his memory for some who knew him.
“It does not alter who he was a person,” said ex-Invader Coby Smith. “He did so many more things. That wasn’t a fulltime thing to be an informant for them.”
Rev. Lawson agreed. “It won’t tarnish his memory for his family and friends.”