(VIA BLACK AMERICA WEB) You may not know his name, but you know his pictures. Memphis-based civil rights photographer Ernest Withers documented most of the important moments of the civil rights movement, including the murder of Emmitt Till and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. His work helped exposed the injustices African-Americans faced in the civil rights era, as well as providing a historical marker for generations to come.
But years after his death in 2007, it was revealed that Withers was also a paid FBI informant.
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien profiles this controversial figure in a new documentary, “Pictures Don’t Lie,” airing on Sunday, Feb. 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
We talked to her about it.
BLACKAMERICAWEB.COM: How did you get interested in the Ernest Withers story in the first place? I know the “Memphis Commercial Appeal” did a big story on it. Is that how you first found out about it?
SOLEDAD O’BRIEN: Absolutely. And you’ll remember the fallout was national and somewhat international as well. People were really stunned that Ernest Withers was an FBI informant. We were really interested in that story and thought it would be a great subject for doing a longer look at who Ernest Withers was as a human being, and whether his contribution in photojournalism compromised by the allegations. And what was the time like that the FBI would take a guy who was a pillar of the community and try to turn him to be an FBI informant? Those were all the questions we thought hadn’t been answered in their coverage.
Given everything you found in your research, did you come to a conclusion, and if so, what was it?
It is clear that Ernest Withers was informing for the FBI. The real question is why? And the real question was what was the impact of his information? And the real question was what was the era like? I had no idea that there was a thing called the Ghetto Informant Program in the 50’s and 60’s where there were thousands of people [who were a] part of that program in turning people in the ghetto to give information on the civil rights movement.
With COINTELPRO, there was a lot of infiltration of civil rights movements, so was it that surprising that there was also a formal informant program as well?
Part of it, to me, was that the people who ran the Ghetto Informant Program really saw it as very different from COINTELPRO. They thought of it as doing your moral duty for the country, and that’s how they would sell it and spin it. This isn’t spying on your brother – which COINTELPRO was, literally different. That was much more malicious and was out to spread lies and disinformation to undermine a movement.
But how it that different? The intention in both situations was to undermine these movements and have more control over what was going on, or at least knowledge of the activities …
I would say more knowledge. When you look at Ernest Withers and the others, they weren’t asking Ernest Withers to undermine what Dr. King is doing or spread lies. They were just saying we need to know. Tell us who went to the meeting. As a journalist, you’re doing that anyway. Certainly the FBI saw that as a huge difference between COINTELPRO and the Ghetto Informant Program.
Why would they have needed the information, though? It’s the FBI. They weren’t trying to see who was there to sell them more Girl Scout cookies or something.
People who were trying to turn people thought of those programs very differently. There was no evidence that Ernest Withers was ever spreading misinformation or doing anything where he was reporting on Dr. King’s activities. The FBI folks will tell you that COINTELPRO and the Ghetto Informant Program were very different.
I get it. As an outsider, you and I would say spying is spying, and informing is informing. The comparison that the FBI would use and did use was Neighborhood Watch.
Okay, but in your research did you uncover what the impact of this information would be?
We were looking at the impact of Ernest Withers. This wasn’t a documentary about the Ghetto Informant Program; it was a documentary about Ernest Withers, a man who’s a photojournalist. We did not examine the entire program and compare it to COINTELPRO. When we looked at the information [Withers provided to the FBI], it ran the gamut. Some of it was almost gossipy. Some of it was specific to meetings. But the experts told us that there was no information that he seemed to give that undermined what Dr. King was doing. He was not only a fan of Dr. King’s; he loved him.
But for what purpose was the FBI gathering this information?
The purpose was to understand the movement. That is different than sticking a spy in the situation. And in fact, the reason that Ernest Withers was so valuable was that he was absolutely entrenched so he could give them information about who people were, what they did, what meetings were happening, things like that. Andrew Young’s contention was that [civil rights leaders] were trying to be transparent, so if Ernest Withers made a few bucks doing it, then great.
Ernest Withers had eight children. Did he become an informant because he had those mouths to feed and he wasn’t always getting paid for his photographs?
He had a big family, and clearly, he wasn’t getting paid much for his photographs. Sometimes he wasn’t getting paid at all. Not only did he take those iconic photographs, but he was also taking pictures of people’s families and weddings and graduations. That was his job, and sometimes, he was not well compensated. Clearly as a photojournalist, he was very active in pushing the mission of the movement forward. He was the voice of the Emmitt Till trial and created a book about it.
To me, the motivation is fascinating. We can pick at it and try to figure out what the motivations are but ultimately, Ernest Withers took a lot of secrets to his grave.