MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Documents newly released by the FBI shed light on how a freelance news photographer passed photos and information about the civil rights movement to the agency.
The Commercial Appeal obtained FBI records through a lawsuit settlement and reported Ernest Withers sometimes photographed prominent people involved in the movement in what a historian calls a “vacuum cleaner approach” by the FBI.
In a black and white photo taken by Withers, James Bevel is seen flashing a wide smile for the camera. Bevel was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s director of “direct action,” and he was in Memphis on that March 1968 day to organize a massive demonstration.
A short time later, the photo was in an FBI file, along with agent William H. Lawrence’s debriefing of Withers about the speech Bevel gave at LeMoyne-Owen College.
Lawrence’s notes describe a “most virulent black power talk” by Bevel.
The FBI probe into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began well before King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and continued for a year afterward.
Among photos Withers supplied to the FBI as a paid informant were a candid snapshot of King’s top aide, Andrew Young, and one of SCLC field organizer James Orange, standing stunned in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel shortly after King was fatally shot on a balcony. Another shows Coretta Scott King, speaking at a news conference after the assassination of her husband.
The FBI said Withers was authorized to received $20,088 for his work as a “racial informant.”
Despite the revelations about Withers, many people who were in the rights movement harbor no resentment. They blame the FBI.
Withers gave agents photos of Memphis-based U.S. Civil Rights Commission field representative Bobby Doctor holding hands with a young SCLC volunteer. The seeming implication was that Doctor and the volunteer might be having an affair.
Audrey Dandridge, now 74, was the young volunteer. Doctor is referred to in the report as “an admitted agnostic non-believer in Christ.”
“Many black people, especially movement people, are not outraged,” Dandridge said. “He (Withers) did what he had to do.”
The Rev. Harold Middlebrook grew up in Memphis and knew Withers since high school.
“The fact that he was able to tell the story (of the movement) and make the FBI pay him to tell the story of what was going on was beneficial to us,” said Middlebrook, 70. “I admire him for being a pretty smart fellow.”
Although Withers did little direct informing on King, his reports to the agency on others are indicative of what historian Athan Theoharis called a “vacuum cleaner approach” to FBI surveillance, collecting everything for possible later use.
“It seems to me these actions are really questionable. They step over the line,” said Theoharis, author of “Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan.” “Why is Withers taking pictures of all these prominent people and others?”
Historian Kenneth O’Reilly said the FBI had cause to monitor potential disorder using informants like Withers during the volatile 1960s, but he believed the agency went to excessive lengths.
“The threat I think was grossly overestimated,” said O’Reilly, author of “Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com