The revelation that celebrated civil rights era photographer Ernest C. Withers was an FBI informant is being greeted with shock and disbelief. More informed heads like myself are less surprised because J. Edgar Hoover's agency had hard-wired the entourages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders with informants and that was something of an open secret to movement insiders.
What makes Withers different is that he was a paid informant and was the only photojournalist in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, which was the room occupied by King on the night he was assassinated, and had tailed King for the FBI after he arrived in the Tennessee river city to support striking African-American sanitation workers.
PHOTO TAKEN SECONDS AFTER THE ASSASSINATIONThis in turn begs an extraordinarily painful but necessary question:
King's Gandhian belief in non-violent protest aside, Hoover viewed him as a dangerous subversive and it has been long rumored that the FBI played a role in the April 4, 1968 assassination allegedly carried out by sniper James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the crime but later recanted his confession.
Did Withers -- referred to in FBI files as ME-338-R -- play a role in the great civil rights leader's murder, if only indirectly? And is it possible, as I have come to believe, that while the FBI did not play a direct role, they were aware of Ray and did nothing to stop him?
The Memphis Commercial Appeal, which broke the story, found that Withers, who died at age 85 in 2007, collaborated closely with two FBI agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights movement.
The newspaper found that from at least 1968 to 1970, Withers provided photographs, biographical information and scheduling details to the agents in the bureau’s Memphis domestic surveillance program. FBI documents show that Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, taking photographs and telling the agents about a meeting that King had with suspected black militants.Withers's motivation is not known, but David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written biographies of King, told The New York Times that many civil rights workers who gave confidential interviews to the FBI and CIA were automatically classified as "informants." The difference, Garrow said, is that Withers was paid.
Garrow said that informants were rarely motivated by the financial compensation, which "wasn’t enough money to live on." But Marc Perrusquia, who wrote the article for the Commercial Appeal, noted that Withers had eight children and might have struggled to support them.