Freedom Rider: Ernest Withers the Informant
BAR editor and senior Margaret Kimberley
The trusted “movement” photographer was a spy for J. Edgar Hoover. Ernest Withers apparently cashed in on his close relationship with unsuspecting Black Sixties activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Withers is dead, but not forgiven. “The revelation of Withers’ activity should be a reminder of the extent to which the state dedicated itself to destroying any organized effort at black empowerment.”
“Sadly, many of the people personally victimized by Withers are defending and rationalizing his actions.”
The long and infamous history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its attacks upon black Americans in their struggles for human and civil rights are by now well known. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover actively worked to destroy any and all black activists beginning in 1919 when he pursued the political and personal destruction of Marcus Garvey. That subversion of legal rights and the democratic process continued for decades but operated at its fullest extent in the 1950s and 1960s.
The purpose of the FBI Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO was, in Hoover‘s words, to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” what Hoover called “hate groups” but which were in fact organizations fighting for full citizenship rights. The most infamous COINTELPRO action was the murder of the Black Panther Party Chicago chief Fred Hampton. An informant, William O’Neal, joined the Black Panther Party under FBI direction, served as Hampton’s bodyguard, and was then instrumental in planning his killing.
That terrible history was brought to public attention recently when Ernest C. Withers’ relationship with the FBI was revealed. Withers was a celebrated photographer whose work included coverage of the trial of Emmett Till’s killers, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, and the Memphis protests which brought King to the place of his assassination. According to a report in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Withers was an FBI informant who gave extensive information on King and other activists in Memphis, their movements, and their conversations. Withers reported to the FBI on the day of King’s assassination and in the days following.
Unfortunately, Withers died in 2007 without ever being confronted with the longstanding rumors of his activities. His colleagues are left to their own devices in trying to understand why he acted as he did. They are also left trying to decide how and, in some cases, whether to judge Withers for his betrayals.
“He actively sabotaged the work of others and endangered their lives, livelihoods and a movement which was bigger than any one person.”
The human response of wanting to defend someone thought to be a friend may be understandable on a personal level, but should never be acceptable politically. The charges against Withers are well documented and in all likelihood he was an informer and was paid by the FBI. This means he actively sabotaged the work of others and endangered their lives, livelihoods and a movement which was bigger than any one person, even those who may still feel a personal connection to Withers.
Whatever the justification for their activities, informants like Withers should never be forgiven and their acts should not be justified. Sadly, many of the people personally victimized by Withers are defending and rationalizing his actions. He had a large family to support, he may have been threatened, the information he gave probably did little harm, etc. Andrew Young’s comments about Withers are the worst of all. "I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side.''
Andrew Young has been the king of the cringe-worthy comment for some time now, but this remark is appalling even for him. As one of King’s closest confidantes, Young should know better than anyone the damage caused by FBI’s actions against King. They tapped his phones, recorded his conversations and encouraged him to commit suicide. Because there was no timely investigation into the King assassination, we will never know if the FBI was directly involved. The fact that Withers was located in Memphis and reported on King’s activities and movements up until the very moment of his death is in and of itself suspicious. The revelation of Withers’ activity should be a reminder of the extent to which the state dedicated itself to destroying any organized effort at black empowerment.
The muted response to the Withers revelation is sad proof of the lack of study of the movement, its fall and its aftermath. If this world-changing phenomenon were considered in the light that it ought to be, there would be unified revulsion expressed about Withers and a meaningful discussion of how the movement ended. The killing of Martin Luther King meant the effective end of one of the most successful mass movements in the history of the world. It is difficult to imagine that the information Withers provided to the FBI was not in some way connected with King’s death. For that reason alone, the outrage surrounding this revelation should have been loud and clear.
“It is difficult to imagine that the information Withers provided to the FBI was not in some way connected with King’s death.”
The Withers case should not be seen through the window of the past. It is a warning to us in the present and a reminder that the police state apparatus is ever present. Should the civil rights movement be reactivated and organizing for change become the norm once again, there will be another COINTELPRO, under a different name no doubt, but the activities will be revived and some “friends” will turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.
We now have a government which gives itself the right to order the assassination of American citizens and which claims the right to order anyone arrested and incarcerated without charge or trial. Black Americans have been entrapped in dubious, false flag terror cases created out of whole cloth by the government and its informants. The past is prologue and Ernest C. Withers will not be the last person used to sabotage his own people.
An energized, well organized movement for political change is what this nation needs most. That movement should learn the history of past movements, including the errors, and the betrayals that brought so many people and organizations to premature death. Individuals brave enough to speak truth to the powerful should be able to do so without repeating past mistakes or falling prey to the snares which brought down so many in the past. Ernest Withers should be remembered as a traitor. Yes his photos are iconic but they are now tainted and cannot be rehabilitated for the sake of sentimentality. The revelations about Withers are indeed frightening and rightly cause paranoia and anger. Those feelings cannot be submerged. They should be discussed openly. If they are not, then there are more Ernest Withers’ in our future and more destroyed movements.
Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains an edifying and frequently updated blog at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley@BlackAgandaReport.com.