Photographer Ernest Withers FBI Informant During Civil Rights Era

This story caught my eye last week. What better profession than a photographer to be enlisted as a spy for the FBI?

After a 2-year investigation by The Commercial Appeal titled “Ernest Withers: Exposed“,  Photojournalist Ernest Withers has recently been identified as a paid “racial informant” for the FBI from 1968-1970 during the Civil Rights movement.

Typically referred to by his informant number ME 338-R, Ernest’s work as an FBI spy in the 1960’s was revealed when his informant file was requested in 2008 by a reporter through the Freedom of Information Act.

Ernest Withers in front of his
Memphis photo studio

Withers provided information on the activities of Black Panther members and also had unparalleled access to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taking pictures of the historic leader in his motel room on the day of his assasination.

So why would Withers do it? A former friend of the photographer, Nancy Snow, states in her Huffington Post commentary that “Withers had eight children and may have felt like this game of cat and mouse with the intelligence community was what he had to do to survive.”

Watch video of the PBS Newshour segment, Civil Rights Photographer May Have Led Double Life as FBI Informant, featuring an interview with Withers’ friend Earl Caldwell who was a New York Times reporter back then.

Caldwell seems to defend Withers by saying “In my own case, the FBI hounded me, hounded me about being an informant on the Black Panthers, which was the subject of my reporting at that time for The New York Times.”

What do YOU think: Does this revelation taint the photographic legacy of Ernest Withers?

I want to know. Leave your comments below.

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