If it’s true, it hurts a lot, even if it’s not completely surprising.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal has reported this week that iconic civil rights photographers Ernest Withers, who documented everything from the grisly images of Emmett Till after being pulled from the Tallahatchie River to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prolific FBI informant.
He also, apparently, was an effective one.
The article quotes his daughter and son as saying they had no idea of their father’s activities, adding that they would have to review the available evidence before drawing a conclusion.
On one level, this is not so surprising.
FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s distaste for the civil rights movement knew no bounds, and his establishment of COINTELPRO has been well-documented. So, too, has his wiretapping of Dr. King, which has been part of public discourse since a young David Garrow first burst into prominence with The FBI and Martin Luther King.
Still, there is something profoundly eerie about such a beloved figure as Withers sharing so freely with the government the actions and movements of civil rights leaders and members of more radical black groups.
I met Withers while studying at Medill, where an exhibit of some of his black and white images from the 40s, 50s and 60s was displayed at the McCormick Tribune Center.
I introduced myself and I told him how I had followed and admired his work for years.
In his early 80s, the beefy Withers smiled genially. We chatted for a minute before each going on our way.
It’s tough to reconcile the image and memory of the man I met with the actions of which he appears to have taken.
Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls, has written in a review of Martin Scorcese’s The Departed and spoken about a certain relief people in South Boston felt when they learned that Whitey Bulger had also been an FBI informant. The relief stemmed in part from the external validation of what people had known in their guts all along.
While a very different figure in Southie than Withers was in Memphis, the civil rights movement and black community more generally, both men were esteemed figures who had unparalleled access due to their perceived unquestionable loyalty and trustworthiness (Whitey of course had the gangster and fear element going, too.).
Betrayal of trust is one of the most devastating experiences a person can have. After learning the truth, we can question our judgment, our memories, our choices and the meaning of the relationships we have had and cherished. While relieved to know what actually occurred, the sorting out process and figuring out how to move forward can be confusing and painful.
The process can be even more so when the person who committed the betrayal, like Withers, is no longer alive, or, like Bulger, has disappeared.
A number of the people interviewed in the Commercial Appeal’s story like movement stalwart Andrew Young said the revelation did not change his assessment of Withers’ life and contributions.
Others’ evaluations may vary.
For now, though, we get a deeper understanding of Hoover’s insidious actions and are left with an unsettling set of information to contemplate about the man who photographed some of last century’s key moments and another who ruthlessly ran a neighborhood its residents called the best in the world.