A 348-page FBI report about photographer Ernest Withers contains new details—but apparently no new bombshells–about his work as a paid FBI informant while he documented the civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The FBI report, released under a court order, names several African American activists that Withers spied on, and details some of the information he provided, according to a story published yesterday in The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tennessee. For instance, Withers provided information about the political views, allegiances, and love life of one local civil right activist, the newspaper reports.
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 of Martin Luther King in 1968 and amassed one of the largest archives on African-American society, music and culture.
The Commercial Appeal reported in 2010 that it had discovered by chance that Withers had worked as a paid FBI informant at the same time he was documenting the civil rights movement. While examining documents about a public corruption probe from 1970 involving the photographer, the newspaper came across an informant number the FBI had assigned to Withers–but neglected to redact from the corruption probe documents.
The newspaper sued last year for the release of documents related to Withers’ work as a paid FBI informant, after the FBI refused a Freedom of Information Act request to hand over the documents. The Commercial Appeal noted in yesterday’s report that documents finally handed over under court order by the FBI were “heavily redacted” and incomplete, however.
The Commercial Appeal reported that the FBI first recruited Withers in 1958, and he remained an informant until at least 1972, “collecting a paycheck while helping agents monitor the pulse of Memphis’ African-American community, deemed vulnerable by the FBI to subversion, first from Communism and later from black militantism.”
The paper goes on to say that the “FBI used the photographer to help monitor activists and celebrities visiting Memphis and to keep tabs on local figures.” It describes the information he provided about one civil rights activist, who recently told the newspaper that the information Withers provided about her was not only inaccurate, but could have caused her to lose her job at the time.
Historian Athan Theoharis, author of a book about the FBI called Spying on Americans, reviewed Withers’ FBI file for The Commercial Appeal and told the newspaper his activities with the FBI had nothing to do with enforcing federal laws. “It had to do with obtaining derogatory information on individuals,” in order to discredit them because their political views were considered dangerous, Theoharis told the newspaper.