Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Who is the Informer? The Story of Ernest Withers

Don't think it can't happen to you.  Ernest Withers was a friend to Martin Luther King and many other civil rights leaders.  Yet he was being paid by the FBI to inform on the King's activities.

A few years ago a young man showed up at some meetings we had for DREAMers.  He was very handsome.  He said he was originally from Columbia, that he was undocumented and was an engineering student at the University of Houston.  After a few months things began to sound fishy.  He told me that he had not been enrolled for over a year.  We never figured out where he lived or what he really did for a living.  Eventually I decided that it was better not to have contact with him.  

Similarly, an advocacy group for immigrants who has lots of volunteers asked if I wanted to be put on a pro-immigrant list serve.  I agreed for a time, but eventually got too busy to participate.  During that time I was checking the statistics on the dream act blog very carefully.  I realized that a certain person kept checking the blog at 8 am eastern time every weekday - this went on for several months.  I was able to trace the domain and it belonged to a group that had a huge security contract with the U.S. Government. This person made a few comments to the blog and I was able to track back to the same domain address.  I found that he was one of the main people working with the advocacy group for immigrants that had been recruiting me.

Recently the Washington Post ran a series on the gigantic security machine that has been set up since 9-11.  It is so big its unwieldy.  Even now that W. is gone, our phones  (meaning everybody - no just radical figures) are being tapped and emails being checked.  

Well it looks like Withers was part of this type of operation a long time ago.  Its a shame.  He took some really good pictures.

Check out this article from the July 19, 2010 Washington Post.  It will scare you:

A hidden world, growing beyond control by Dana Priest and William Arkin


Civil Rights Photographer Unmasked as Informer

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Ernest C. Withers in his Beale St. studio in Memphis. F.B.I. files indicate that Mr. Withers, who died in 2007, was an informant.

ATLANTA — That photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala.? He took it. The well-known image of black sanitation workers carrying “I Am a Man” signs in Memphis? His. He was the only photojournalist to document the entire trial in the murder of Emmett Till, and he was there in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, Dr. King’s room, on the night he was assassinated.

Withers was often called the Original Civil Rights Photographer, for images like this 1961 shot of the Memphis Greyhound bus station.
But now an unsettling asterisk must be added to the legacy of Ernest C. Withers, one of the most celebrated photographers of the civil rights era: He was a paid F.B.I. informer.
On Sunday, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis published the results of a two-year investigation that showed Mr. Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, had collaborated closely with two F.B.I. agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights movement. It was an astonishing revelation about a former police officer nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, whose previous claim to fame had been the trust he engendered among high-ranking civil rights  leaders, including Dr. King....link to complete article

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