Famed Civil Rights Photographer Was FBI Mole

Civil rights photojournalist Ernest C. Withers talks about his picture of Rev. Martin Luther King at an award ceremony in New York in this February 2005 file photo. Three years after his death in 2007, Withers was unmasked as a paid FBI informant during the civil rights era.
AP Photo
The folks opening the Ernest Withers Museum in Memphis, Tenn. may have to make some adjustments. The museum is scheduled to open October 15, three years after the death of the legendary black photographer, who documented the civil rights era with nearly unmatched access to its defining characters and events.

But it might as well be renamed the ME 338-R Museum after a Tennessee newspaper revealed that Withers wasn't just snapping photos - he was also relaying intelligence to the FBI as a paid mole, referred to in FBI documents by that confidential informant number.

"[FBI] reports portray Withers as a prolific informant who, from at least 1968 until 1970, passed on tips and photographs detailing an insider's view of politics, business and everyday life in Memphis' black community," Memphis' Commercial Appeal reported Sunday following a two-year investigation.

Withers apparently communicated with two FBI agents conducting domestic surveillance in Memphis, providing information that the agency used to disrupt the activities of the Black Panther movement and its offshoots and anticipate dissent and possible riots.

Withers - at least until Sunday - was most famous for shadowing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day before King was killed, gaining access to King's hotel room after the shooting, and documenting the trial for the murder of Emmett Till.

"Civil rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and disbelief," The New York Times reported Tuesday.

"If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship," said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s, told the Times.

But others were more forgiving, the Times said, quoting former civil rights organizer Andrew Young as saying, "We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn't suspect Withers individually."