In a shocking reveal, the Times is reporting that one of the “most celebrated photographers of the civil rights era” — Ernest C. Withers, who died in 2007 at the age of 85 — was in fact a "paid FBI informer." Withers — who has been nicknamed the "Original Civil Rights Photographer" — was behind some of the most iconic and enduring images from the decade, including photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, and black sanitation workers carrying “I Am a Man” signs in Memphis. He was also in King’s room in the Lorraine Hotel on the night King was assassinated.
The Commercial Appeal of Memphis published the results of a two-year investigation that indicates Withers worked with FBI agents in the sixties, giving them information on civil-rights leaders including King, and providing “photographs, biographical information and scheduling details” to agents. Withers, a former police officer, was said to have been widely respected and trusted, which makes the revelation all the more surprising.
“It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University who has written books about the F.B.I. “It really speaks to the degree that the F.B.I. was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”
When he died, Withers had the largest catalogue of any individual photographer covering the civil-rights movement in the South. His family — who did not respond to the Times' requests for comment (though one daughter reportedly said she "did not find the report conclusive") — had been planning to open a museum named after him, an effort that now seems like it may be a much greater challenge.