Ernest Withers’ and Whitey Bulger’s Betrayals

Iconic civil rights photographer Ernest Withers apparently was an FBI informant.

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.

And yet.

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.


7 responses to “Ernest Withers’ and Whitey Bulger’s Betrayals

  1. Jeff,

    I found this to be a fascinating story and I e-mailed a professor friend who teaches post-labor movement Black history and migration at JMU (to mostly White students). There are so many angles to this story….here was my first take in my e-mail.

    “A fascinating, complex and not-so-surprising story that shows the personal and moral quagmires that oppression brings upon people. I thought this might be some interesting fodder for your classes. What’s so revealing are some of the responses from civil rights activists in this story. While many “Whites” might expect to hear an outcry and label of “traitor” placed on Withers, the depth of understanding of the nature of oppression doesn’t bear out that moral judgment from “Blacks.””

    It just seems that the activist responses in this story are born from a deep empathy and understanding for Withers and the multifaceted dilemmas heaved on those who lived through that oppression. Of course, I believe it helps that so much time has passed. However, I also believe it speaks to a larger community ethos of reserved judgment and forgiveness that was fostered in that civil rights era.

    So, we may have more to learn through the responses to this story than from the revelations of the story itself.

  2. …speaking of JMU, here’s the best line I’ve heard about JMU’s win at Virginia Tech.

    How many batteries does it take to light up the scoreboard at Virginia Tech? ….1AA

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Love the joke and the typically thoughtful comment. I always enjoy learning your perspective and will consider what you have shared. For me, too, there is a question about what folks in the movement might be willing to share publicly, even if they held different thoughts.

      How are you and your family? Any plans to return to Chicago for a visit? Please let me know when you can.

      Thanks again, Dany. It’s great to hear from you.


  3. Wow–you met Withers–you get around. I like the connection to Whitey Bulger.

  4. I think you’re absolutely right that private sentiments might differ from what folks are offering publicly and I don’t doubt that the betrayal and deception has to hurt a lot.

    I know the immediate emotional belch I give in private in response to lots of opinions I hear is not the more understanding response I try to give more publicly. Hopefully, that’s the result of being more thoughtful than of just moderating and compromising my view.

    So, I agree that there’s possibly/probably some real dilemma in responses from movement folks – lots of which we won’t hear. I’m thinking, though, that the more tempered responses still are sincere (if not also difficult), with a strong desire to elevate folks past an emotional backlash. I can even imagine many of those folks having a little MLK voice giving some guidance in their heads – or is that just the Pollyanna romantic in me speaking?

    ….and we’re desperate for a trip back to Chicago and are hoping to make it happen. BTW, let me know if Aidan wants to check out JMU – there’s some good and interesting stuff happening here and the campus and setting and really beautiful.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      I hear you, my man. Aidan’s got his heart set on sunny CA, and I’ll let him know about JMU.

      What’s up to your family, and let’s talk soon.


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