For Ernest Withers, taking pictures while marching in the Civil Rights Movement helped him document his experience, but a FOIA request from a Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter, inspired by an anonymous tip, revealed that Withers had another role during that turbulent time: federal informant. The reporter and assembled panelists will discuss Withers and FOIA’s role uncovering this hidden history at an event at the National Press Club next Thursday, October 10.
Withers, who had been a WWII veteran and one of Memphis’s first black police recruits before opening his own photography studio, used his access as a freelance photographer to get pictures. But records showed that he had also been relaying information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the 1950s into the 1970s; even after his death, the Bureau was reluctant to acknowledge his role. However, reporter Marc Perrusquia noticed that the Department of Justice had responded to a FOIA request by “carefully redacting references to informants – with one notable exception[:] a single reference to Withers’ informant number.” (For a summary of related coverage, see below.)
The Press Club announced: “The panel has particular resonance today. It comes on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It arrives on the heels of recent news about the government’s sweeping domestic surveillance operations. The discussion hopes to highlight the challenges public-affairs journalism faces as news organizations’ business models are under stress. The discussion will shed light not only on the government’s past surveillance practices but also on FOIA and the public’s right to know what its government is up to.”
We at SGI also note that Perrusquia’s work is part of our “FOIA Files” (#603), and that the agreement between the Commercial Appeal and the Justice Department, for further future releases, means that we will continue to learn more about what the government has done and is doing.
A sampling of coverage (see also the Commercial Appeal’s summary):
- “Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement” (9/12/10, Commercial Appeal)
- “King murder photos illuminate Ernest Withers’ FBI link” (9/12/10, Commercial Appeal)
- “Unmasking photographer Ernest Withers’ FBI link attracts range of responses” (9/19/10, Commercial Appeal)
- “FBI records reveal Ernest Withers’ secret life spying on black Memphis” (7/8/12, Commercial Appeal)
- “ME 338-R Transcript” (2/22/13, NPR’s “On The Media”)
- “Settlement to unveil photos, records documenting Ernest Withers’ work as FBI informant” (2/25/13, Commercial Appeal)
- “Withers secretly gave FBI photos of Martin Luther King’s staff, spied on Memphis movement” (3/30/13, Commercial Appeal)
- Finally, literal coverage: a building in Washington, D.C., was temporarily adorned last winter by an immense version of Withers’ iconic photograph of protesters holding signs reading “I AM A MAN” for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that had brought Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to Memphis in the spring of 1968.