Thursday, September 16, 2010

The informant

You’ve seen the work of the late photographer Ernest C. Withers. We all have. Throughout the heyday of the civil rights movement in America — easily the most photographically documented series of domestic events in America of the 1960s — his photographs told the story of a nation at a racial crossroads.

A much-remembered image of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1966, in repose on a bed at the Lorraine Hotel. Another image at the same Memphis hotel two years later, on April 4, 1968, the day everything and nothing changed for black Americans. A timeless shot of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in late March 1968, carrying the signs that announced, quietly, powerfully, I AM A MAN.

Through many of these photographs, Withers, an African-American former police officer who died in 2007, was a kind of First Witness to the civil rights movement, its progress and its setbacks. But the legacy of Withers, who was long ago nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, took a hit over the weekend, when an exhaustive news report revealed that Withers had an interest in working for what was then very much the Other Side, the enemy of that movement.

We can thank the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, which on Sunday published a stunningly comprehensive report, the outcome of a two-year investigation revealing that, in the nation’s most perilous time vis-à-vis race relations, Withers was an informant for the FBI. The Commercial-Appeal obtained the reports under the Freedom of Information Act.

From 1968 (and possibly before that) to 1970, Withers apparently collaborated with William H. Lawrence and Howell Lowe, two FBI agents attached to the agency's Memphis domestic surveillance program, providing them with photos, biographical data and the particulars of dates and schedules — all intended to keep tabs on King in particular and the leadership of the movement in general. The photograph from 1966 points to a relationship with King that may have preceded Withers' ties to the bureau.

Athan Theoharis, a Marquette University historian and author of books on the FBI, told The New York Times it was “an amazing betrayal. … It really speaks to the degree that the FBI was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

"He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,'' said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow told the Commercial-Appeal.

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But looked at through a slightly different lens, so to speak, at least some of the odious aspects of being an informant have to be reconsidered. From all accounts, Withers, a father of eight children, was not lavishly compensated financially for his work with the FBI, a fact that necessarily casts his efforts on the agency’s behalf in a more charitable light than Withers as the Judas from Central Casting.

It strongly suggests that Withers was mostly acting on what he believed to be nationalistic principles, even patriotic principles. As a former police officer, he was no doubt foundationally motivated by what he saw as a greater societal good.

Our cynical aspect will find it hard to completely drown out speculations on another grim scenario. Did Withers, King's shadow in the difficult days of 1968, have anything to do with the assassination in Memphis? FBI director J. Edgar Hoover loathed King with a monstrous passion; how far would Hoover go, what resources would he employ to discredit him?

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But flip the script slightly. It may well have been that Withers hoped his photographs would reveal a humanistic side to the movement that terrified Hoover — a way of showing that, rather than being a cabal of fifth columnists and domestic terrorists, the civil rights movement was mostly populated and animated by everyday people summoned to moral witness in the streets and at the lunch counters of a deeply fractious nation.

And in other important ways, the revelation of Withers as social double agent changes nothing. It can’t be overlooked that, whatever information Withers may have passed along to Jedgar and the Feds, whatever he may have told them about the civil rights movement doesn’t trump what Withers, without uttering a word, told the world about that movement: its inherent human drama, the poignancy of a people in the agonizingly painful process of awakening itself, and awakening the nation in which they lived.

An informant provides intelligence. We may never know all the specifics of what Withers told the bureau. But whatever he provided to the FBI about the most visible drive for human equality in the nation’s history ultimately pales in significance compared to what Withers communicated through the evidence of the photograph. Generations later, there’s no way to redact that information, the deeper intelligence that revealed what was at stake for America in those dangerous days.

Image credits: Top: Ernest C. Withers. All others: © Ernest C. Withers Trust via Decaneas Gallery, Boston; as published in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

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