The great civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was sitting in a Sumner, Mississippi, courtroom in September 1955 when Emmett Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, took the stand to testify against the two white men who had come to his house one night and taken away his 14-year-old nephew. As Wright defied an entire history that had kept black Americans “in their place” by pointing his index finger and identifying one of his nephew’s murderers, Withers defied the judge’s orders and snapped one of the first iconic images of the civil rights era.
That was just the beginning — both of a historic movement for racial justice in America and of Withers’s role as its documentarian — a story vividly told in Preston Lauterbach’s new book, “Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers.” But there was a hidden story behind Withers’s iconic photographs that emerged only after his death, when the Memphis Commercial Appeal revealed that Withers had all along worked as an FBI informant, reporting back to the agency about the same activists he photographed. With “Bluff City,” Lauterbach tells that story, in a book that is as much about Withers’s complicated relationship with the civil rights movement as it is about another protagonist — the city of Memphis, Tennessee — and its own fateful role in the history of that movement.
Withers grew up in black Memphis, discovered he had a knack for photography when the glamorous wife of boxing champion Joe Louis visited his school, and developed his craft while stationed overseas with the U.S. Army. He briefly worked as a cop, before being fired for selling whiskey on the side, and then embraced the life of a freelance photographer, shooting everything from funerals to commercials, as well as his favorite subject, Beale Street. Withers would hit the nightclubs early in the evening to photograph revelers out on the town, then run to develop the images and return before the night was over to sell the pictures for a dollar.
In the years that followed the Till trial, Withers photographed a young Elvis Presley, a fellow lover of the Memphis nightclub scene, as he mingled with black artists at a local club in the early days of integration. Withers met Mississippi activist Medgar Evers during the Till trial; eight years later, when Evers himself was murdered, Withers photographed his funeral. Police beat him with nightsticks, arrested him, and exposed his film to destroy his pictures. Undeterred, Withers traveled the South covering school integrations, marches, and voter registration drives. In Memphis, he photographed anti-war priests, the Nation of Islam, and a new generation of student activists calling no longer for freedom but for Black Power.
Withers first photographed Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, as King boarded one of the first integrated buses, and then one last time more than a decade later, as the reverend locked arms with fellow marchers at a tense Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, just a week before he was assassinated in the same city. On the day of King’s last march, Withers also took his best-known photograph — of hundreds of strikers holding signs bearing the words “I Am a Man.” Those signs were mounted on two-by-two sticks that later in the day turned into weapons. Behind those signs lies a darker, unresolved story: Withers, the FBI informant, drove activists to rent a saw to cut the sticks, then helped mount them on the signs. At the march, young boys ripped the signs off and used the sticks to smash windows — and the signs and their origin remained a mystery at the 1978 House investigation of King’s assassination. Decades later, speaking to a German sociologist, Withers gave the first vague hint of his role in that episode. “If anybody is as much responsible for that riot up there, as anybody, I might be responsible,” Lauterbach writes that Withers said.
“Withers did not anticipate that the connection between himself, the bureau, and the riot could ever be put together,” Lauterbach adds. “Making this connection myself, I began to wonder, Had the I Am A Man signpost been merely a photographic prop? Or had they been packed with a more mischievous intent? … Only through the times, place, and people around Withers can we understand how he ended up perhaps the key figure in a moment that rerouted history.”
Withers wasn’t at the Lorraine Hotel to capture King’s last moments on April 4, 1968, but he got there shortly afterward and drove the South African photographer Joseph Louw, who had photographed King’s body as it hit the ground, to develop his images at his studio. Louw was too shaken to develop the pictures, so Withers did for him. Back at the Lorraine later that day, Withers photographed King’s blood pooled on the balcony where he was shot. Then he found a medicine bottle in the reverend’s room and used it to scoop up a bit of the civil rights martyr’s blood. As Lauterbach writes, “He didn’t know if it was right or wrong.”
Moral ambiguity is a quiet thread running through “Bluff City.” The book doesn’t quite answer the “why” of Withers’s betrayal — and perhaps with Withers gone, that’s how it should be. But shortly after his first photograph of King, Withers started working for the FBI, trading photographs and names of activists, information about their plans and contacts, and his own thoughts and analysis of the movement for a paycheck. His work as a spy spanned almost two decades.
The revelation, in 2010, that Withers worked as an FBI informant was met with shock and anger by many activists — but there is no judgement in “Bluff City.” Instead, Lauterbach writes that he wrestled with what writing this story would do to the legacy of a man he calls a “flawed hero.” Withers worked for the FBI, in part, to put his eight children through college. But he also developed a genuine interest and curiosity about the activists he reported on, in some cases defending them before his FBI handler. His career as an informant, Lauterbach notes, ended perhaps ironically after he was swept into an FBI investigation of corrupt Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton. Withers was caught on tape arranging a cash-for-clemency scheme: He was trying to get a young black man freed who faced a long prison sentence for a first-time offense.
“We can’t simply drop people, great people especially, who don’t fit our standards of purity. This is particularly true of how we treat African-American historical figures,” Lauterbach writes as his final word on Withers. “Is it our task now to decide how a black person should have navigated a racist world?”
I spoke with Lauterbach about what to make of Withers’s actions, the unsolved mysteries of King’s last days, and the FBI’s targeting of the civil rights activists of the time, as well as those of today.
There is an unresolved ambiguity throughout the book, partially because Withers is not here to answer for what he did, so we can never fully understand what drove him. But you portray his genuine curiosity about the civil rights movement, the fact that he was doing all this research the FBI didn’t necessarily ask of him, and that he seemed to be so honest in his assessments of those he reported on. Even if all of this was part of his betrayal, are those redeeming qualities?
You have to take it from the beginning. When the news came out that he was an informer, people were so outraged because of what we know now the FBI was doing and what we thought we knew about him, which was that he was a hero to the civil rights movement. And just as an aside: Anybody who’s outraged about Withers participating in this should also ask themselves, “Have I done a fingernail’s worth of what he did for the good side?”
It’s that disparity between who we thought he was and what we know about the FBI that makes it look so bad. But when you get into the story, you realize he was involved long before all the things we know about [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover became public. Certainly activists were frustrated with the FBI during that era and were quite outspoken, particularly during the Emmett Till trial, about the lack of federal presence and that whole miscarriage of justice. At the time, of course, there was frustration with the feds.
But there were also instances in which the feds provided the only real help that the movement was going to get from any angle of the American government. So it seems like a betrayal if you just look at the headline and say, “This black guy informed on the movement.” But when you dig into it and you really get into the flow of what the times were like, and you see how Withers was on the scene in Little Rock, when the 101st Airborne came and integrated Central High School — he was there for that. I think these moments had a big impact on him. He was involved with a big case in West Tennessee that helped determine President [John] Kennedy’s and Attorney General [Robert] Kennedy’s strategy on pursuing civil rights. These were optimistic moments and he was right there. Of course, things got dark later on and he remained involved. But just to kill him, metaphorically, for being involved with the FBI, I don’t think is fair.
As far as you can tell, did Withers always give his straight assessment of activists and their work, even when that wasn’t what the FBI might have wanted to hear? He never manipulated intelligence to fit the FBI’s desired narrative?
You have to wonder, was Withers masking? That is, was he telling the FBI what it wanted to hear? Because one of his motives was financial, and he needed to keep the information flowing their way, so they would keep the money flowing his way. But I see more examples in his work of him trying to translate. The Nation of Islam is a good example. The FBI thought of it as a viciously anti-white, un-American cult. Withers became involved with the mosque, which was right down the street from his studio, and he let the brothers hang out in his studio. He listened to them, chatted with them; he’d let them store their wares in his shop. And he ended up telling the FBI, essentially, that this was an uplift organization that was helping guys, some of whom were fresh out of prison, to avoid all kinds of self-destructive and antisocial behavior. That’s not the way the FBI looked at it at all, but that’s the way Withers saw it, being involved in the community there on Beale Street. He really got a different perspective on it. At the same time, he definitely got up to his neck in it, as one will with the FBI. I don’t think one really controls that relationship; it’s the other way around.
In your book, you describe how close Withers got to some of the activists he reported on. And it seems that relationship, even friendship, was at times quite genuine. Or was that just opportunism?
No, I think that Withers really did relate to everybody that he tried to blend in with and inform on. I think that’s what made him such an effective operative, that he wasn’t simply looking to bury the knife in somebody’s back. He was really looking to understand and analyze these various situations, whether it be the voting rights movement or the militant movement. He wanted to be able to provide, I think, legitimate information for the government.
I’ve spoken with members of the Nation of Islam mosque, members of the Invaders. These were groups that Withers did surveillance on, and they loved him, because he was a friendly guy. Because he had a nice personality, because he was quite genuine. I discovered this too, knowing him a little bit. He was quite genuine in his interest in other people. He was a good conversationalist. He asked questions. He listened. He maintained eye contact, sometimes to a very terrifying degree while he was driving.
I’ve been friends with members of the Invaders for 10 years and some, and they all liked him. Many of them defend him. One guy in particular, named Sweet Willie Wine, delivered a sermon at Withers’s funeral. Willie Wine’s take on the whole thing was that he always knew that the police were watching him, and he would rather have a friend do it than an enemy.
There are questions that remain unanswered in your book. Withers’s full motivation, which we may never know, but also details about specific incidents, like what his role was, and what the FBI’s role was, in deciding to mount the “I Am a Man” signs on sticks that would later be used as weapons.
The question of the sticks, to me, is big. Because you might have something there in which the FBI deliberately destroyed this final march of Dr. King’s that took place in Memphis a week before his assassination. That’s the event that led to his assassination.
The closest thing I’ve seen that might be a clue was heavily redacted, enough that I couldn’t determine just how much they knew and exactly what was going on. But there’s this document from Hoover to the Memphis office — I think it was April 2, 1968 — that authorizes an unnamed informant to be paid a certain amount for expenses he might incur. Was it Withers? And if so, what was he being paid for? The document implied Hoover was taking a vested interest in this, which is significant to me. If Hoover’s involved, that’s next level. And if they’re putting money into an informant’s activities, that’s doing more than simply recording the events that are taking place, which is what the agents always said that they were doing. They always said, “We’re just merely here gathering information or making observations.” They would make themselves sound like newspaper reporters, objective and simply interested in the facts of the case. Well, if you’re paying an informant, who’s involved with certain activities, what are you paying him for? And why does the director know about that?
Then there was another document, heavily redacted, about the sticks, that indicated that the FBI knew about the sticks being part of the march. They knew about the sticks and they knew the source of the sticks, which was their informant, Withers. The redactions are just good enough that a complete picture of exactly what they knew and the connections they were drawing can’t really be made, but it’s close. It’s some scary stuff. It definitely kept me up for a few nights.
Your book resurfaces some moments of local and national history that have been largely forgotten. But by focusing on the sanitation workers’ strike, it also highlights a part of King’s legacy, his economic justice work, which was really becoming his priority toward the end of his life and which is rarely highlighted in tributes of his legacy.
That’s how he bonded with Memphis in the end, and I think it was really spontaneous. He spoke to the sanitation workers, and he was quite moved by the number of people in the audience. That showed him that the sanitation workers’ movement had a real magnitude. But the fact that it was economic in nature — and of course, it was racial as well — spoke to him of the new direction that he was taking at that time. He just didn’t live long enough to see it through. At the beginning of his career, when Withers took that great photograph of him in Montgomery on the front of a bus, he was all about getting that ride in the front of the bus. By the end of his career, he was saying, “Who cares if you can ride up in front of the bus if you don’t have bus fare?”
The FBI seems rather ambivalent on COINTELPRO. When he was director, James Comey criticized it. Christopher Wray has called it one of the “darker moments” in the agency’s history. But the FBI’s headquarters is still named after Hoover, and the bureau has come under intense criticism for surveilling black activists in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests and for the absurd “black identity extremist” category they have come up with. Is the FBI’s past still its present in a way?
That’s something I’ve really tried to talk to people about with regard to this story, just how current it is. If you’re involved with any kind of activism, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March, if you’re involved with any protest organization, you’re going to be observed.
I was continuously surprised by the fact that, back then, there was a “racial intelligence” division. That’s so disturbing. The idea that there was a taxpayer-funded law enforcement division of officers and agents who were carrying out surveillance on black people. Why? That’s really disturbing and bizarre. I hope there isn’t a “racial intelligence” division today.
They do have a “Race Paper,” though we don’t know what it says.
Yes, the similarity’s eerie. Are we really still looking at people who are trying to either protest or just simply demand equal rights, are we continually looking at them as enemies of the state? Because that’s certainly the way that they were looked at back then. And the same thing is now happening with Black Lives Matters, the exact same thing. It’s people who are demanding that society treat them fairly. If they do it in a way that’s too loud or too confrontational, or if they block traffic, suddenly they’re disturbing the peace. They want peace. That’s all they want. The same was true for the Nation of Islam back then. I mean, sure, they were angry. They had every right to be angry, but you weren’t allowed to be. If you’re not angry, how are you going to get any attention?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.