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Monday, February 21, 2011

There can be an exciting life style as a photographer and you may find your legacy taking center stage over your years of hard work after you departed this life. Case in point, Ernest Withers Civil Rights Photographer.

Ernest Withers was a photographer who’s black-and-white images illustrates a history of life in the segregated South in the 1950s and ’60s. He recorded the civil rights movement from the front lines and from the Beale Street music scene. He is also remembered for his capturing on film the last years of Negro League baseball. His work appeared in publications like Time, Newsweek and The New York Times and has been collected in four books: “Let Us March On,” “Pictures Tell the Story,” “The Memphis Blues Again” and “Negro League Baseball.”

He was born August 7, 1922, in Memphis, Tennessee. He worked as a photographer in the Army in World War II and started a studio when he returned. He also worked for about three years as one of the first nine African-American police officers in Memphis. I think this history of service to country and community is important when you look at accusations he was an FBI informant.

In a yellow journalistic style, Marc Perrusquia writes, "As a foot soldier in J. Edgar Hoover's domestic intelligence program, Withers helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis. In Withers, who ran a popular Beale Street photography studio frequented by the powerful and ordinary alike, the FBI found a super-informant, one who, according to an FBI report, proved "most conversant with all key activities in the Negro community.''
Marc Perrusquia filed his FOIA request in 2007, after Withers died. So Withers cannot offer any response in his defense. During my meager research, I’ve read similar descriptions but have also run across a claim he was force into that role. Nothing definitive. At least not to my satisfaction.

Not give too much credit to Mr. Perrusquia’s claim, all I’ve read is that there are references to a confidential informant number, ME 338-R, which the FBI didn't redact. However it isn’t directly linked to Mr. Withers in the accounts given by Mr. Perrusquia. Mr. Perrusquia notes that, "the one record that would pinpoint the breadth and detail of his undercover work — his informant file — remains sealed."

Withers played a key roll in the Civil Rights Movement as a result of his photographic document of the Emmett Till trial. He was witness to key Civil Rights moments including: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Medgar Evers Funeral, the Integration of Little Rock High School, the March Against Fear, the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike and the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination and funeral.

I reserve judgment on the discrediting claim and look to what his talent behind the lens produced. To help support that position, I add in Mr. Withers service to country, support and service to the law as a police officer, and both the era and the nature of J Edgar Hoover and his FBI. Any claims his being a sneaky little tattle tale falls short when compared to the danger of being a black photo journalist in the throes of desegregation of the 50’s and 60’s.

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