Spies, Informants, and Lies . . . Oh My!

During the Civil Rights Movement, the FBI employed spies to infiltrate major organizations whose mission was to accomplish equality for all citizens. These spies would become active members of the organization and maintain an presence in the Civil Rights Movement. Informants were paid by the FBI to befriend leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. Recently, an article in Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper used FBI records to reveal one such spy. He was known as a civil rights photojournalist. He is remembered as one of the men in room 306 (Dr. King’s room) at the Lorraine Hotel when Rev. King was assassinated.

According to the New York Times, civil rights photojournalist, Ernest C. Withers collaborated with two FBI agents on the activities of several civil rights leaders. The Memphis’ Commercial Appeal newspaper published the result of a two year investigation and used open FBI records as evidence. Ernest Withers died in 2007 at age 85.

Historian Athan Theoharis expressed his shock and called Withers’ actions an “amazing betrayal”. Withers, a former police officer, had been nicknamed the ‘original civil rights photographer”. Withers captured the heart of the movement in well known images. He was the photographer behind the “I Am a Man” photo of the sanitation strike. He was the only photographer to cover the Emmitt Till trial. He was also known for the photo of Rev. King, riding in one the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Former Atlanta Mayor, then a civil right organizer, Andrew Young said, “It’s not surprising . . . we knew that everything we did was bugged, although, we didn’t suspect Withers individually.

Other reactions included “sadness, dismay, and disbelief”. Civil rights rally organizer of the time, Rev. James Lawson Jr., said, “If it is true, then Ernie abused our friendship.”

2 Responses to “Spies, Informants, and Lies . . . Oh My!”

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