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.

Tags:

COMMENTS

MORE POSTS

Former National Geographic Editor Wilbur Garrett Dies at 85

Posted by on Wednesday August 17, 2016 | Obituary, Photojournalism

Wilbur “Bill” Garrett, who methodically raised the standards for photography at National Geographic and pushed for coverage of timely and sometimes controversial subjects during his tenure as editor in the 1980s, died at his home on August 13, National Geographic has reported. He was 85. Garrett began pushing for a more photojournalistic approach to Geographic... More

Josef Koudelka Documentary Film Offers Intimate Portrait of the Famed Photographer

Posted by on Monday July 25, 2016 | Fine Art, Photojournalism

What would it be like to assist Josef Koudelka? What could an assistant learn simply by observing and helping the legendary Czech photographer? Koudelka Shooting Holy Land, a new documentary film making its U.S. debut today at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (and showing again this Sunday, July 31), gives viewers an opportunity to... More

“Deliberate Attack” Killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Syria, Says Photographer Paul Conroy

Posted by on Tuesday July 12, 2016 | Copyright/Legal, Photojournalism

The sister of deceased American journalist Marie Colvin has filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. district court in Washington D.C. against the state of Syria, alleging that Colvin was deliberately targeted for extrajudicial killing by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The 2012 artillery attack on a media center in Homs killed Colvin, 56,... More