Newspaper Sues to Obtain Ernest Withers’ FBI File

The Memphis Commercial Appeal dropped a bombshell last fall when it reported that the renowned civil rights photographer Ernest Withers worked secretly as an FBI informant, helping the agency “gain a front-row seat to the civil right and anti-war movements in Memphis.”

Now the newspaper says it is suing the FBI for the release of Withers’ complete FBI informant file, in an effort to learn the full extent of his activities as an informant. The questions the paper is trying to answer: When did Withers begin working as an informant? And what information and photographs did he provide to the FBI?

According to the paper, the FBI has refused a Freedom of Information Act request to release Withers’ confidential informant file. So the Commercial Appeal has sued in US District Court in Washington, DC to force the FBI to release the file.

“Holding to decades-old doctrine protecting confidential sources,” the newspaper reported on August 7, “the government argues that exposing any informant, even a dead one, would have a chilling effect when recruiting new informants needed to help battle crime and protect national security.”

Lawyers for the newspaper are arguing that the FBI “is hiding behind laws designed to protect living informants”

Withers died in 2007 at the age of 85. He photographed the civil rights movement from the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955 through the assassination Martin Luther King in 1968 and amassed one of the largest archives an on African-American society, music and culture.

The Commercial Appeal came across Withers’ informant ID number by chance in a document related to a public corruption probe from 1970s that involved the photographer. At the time, Withers was a state employee and had been accused of taking payoffs, the newspaper said.

The FBI blacked out informant ID numbers before releasing the document, but apparently overlooked one number–that belonging to Withers.

“That number, in turn, unlocked the secret of the photographer’s 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released…30 years ago,” the paper explained in a story last fall.

A decision on the paper’s lawsuit to compel the FBI to release Withers’ file is pending.

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