The betrayal of Martin Luther King: Photographer at the heart of civil rights movement exposed as FBI informant

Daily Mail | September 15, 2010
By James White

Comments (13) Add to My Stories As a photographer at the centre of the civil rights movement he had unparalleled access to Martin Luther King and other leading figures, documenting their struggle for equality.

But Ernest Withers has now been exposed as an FBI informant, feeding the organisation considered by many black activists to be its enemy with information for years.

Withers died in 2007 aged 85 after a distinguished career during which he photographed key moments in the civil rights campaign.

Iconic images of King relaxing in a hotel room, travelling for the first time on a de-segregated bus and even the aftermath of his death, killed by a sniper's bullet in April 1968, made up his portfolio.

So activists and friends were left horrified when a U.S. newspaper revealed the results of a two-year investigation into Withers's activities.

The Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal revealed the results of a freedom of information request which forms the basis of claims the photographer was an FBI-paid informant.

It shows the lengths the agency was prepared to go to gain intelligence on the civil rights movement and how they paid Withers $200 for each piece of important information he passed to them.

He gave agents detailed reports on the 1968 sanitation workers strike which led King to his death in Memphis.

It was claimed he also handed over details of the subsequent funeral arrangements, as well as detailed biographies of the movements main players, information about their beliefs and even license plate numbers.

Reaction to the claims by prominent figures involved includes the suggestion that the information was of little use because the movement was a peaceful and transparent one.
Rosalind Withers, one of his daughters, rejected the disclosure, and said: 'My father's not here to defend himself. That is a very, very strong, strong accusation.'

But Andrew Young, 78, the Georgia politician and pastor who was a friend of Dr King, was forgiving.

'I always liked him because he was a good photographer,' he said. 'I don't think Dr King would have minded him making a little money on the side.'

Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University, Wisconsin, and author of a book on the FBI, said: 'It is an amazing betrayal. It really speaks to the degree that the FBI was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.'

The claims against Withers were made when a 1970 FBI fraud report which was obtained by reporters was not properly censored, showing informant number ME338-R was Ernest Withers.

They then cross-referenced the number with 7,000 pages of earlier reports, one of which described ME 338-R as 'most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community'.