white noise

by Jordan Green

News and views from inside the media bubble’ 


Ernest C. Withers, a freelance photographer who sold his images to the black press and became a trusted companion of many movement leaders, is known as “the original civil rights photographer.” The images he captured — from the 1955 funeral of Emmett Till, to the Little Rock integration standoff and the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis — arguably did as much as any speech to sear the movement into the nation’s consciousness. Which makes the revelation in Sunday’s Memphis Commercial Appeal that Wither was an FBI informant, frankly, stunning. Through a review of declassified FBI files, the newspaper stumbled across a document in which the agency failed to redact Withers’ name. By matching the revealed name and a confidential informant number, reporter Marc Perrusquia was able to identify Withers throughout a trail of documents. Among the reported revelations: Withers trailed Martin Luther King Jr. “the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants.” Veterans of the movement gave differing reactions to the Commercial Appeal. D’Army Bailey, a former activist, described the government’s use of people like Withers as “something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes.” Andrew Young, a lieutenant of King’s, said he wasn’t bothered by the revelation. “Young viewed Withers as an important publicity tool because his work often appeared in Jet magazine and other high-profile publications,” the newspaper wrote. “The movement was transparent and didn’t have anything to hide anyway.” Young concludes, “I don’t think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side.”