More than a decade ago, the Memphis Commercial Appeal began an investigation to determine whether FBI surveillance, or lack of it, played a role in the Civil Rights Movement and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King.
During that investigation, reporter Mark Perrusquia received a shocking tip.“A federal contact told me that Ernest Withers was an FBI informant. We tried for years to verify the information. After Wither’s death, it was easier to get information through the public domain to verify leads,” Perrusquia said.
His name may not be readily known, but his photographs are seared into the crux of the movement.
The famous “I AM A MAN” photo of striking Memphis sanitation workers.
The crowd fired up by Dr. King’s I’ve Been To The Mountaintop Speech.
The pool of Dr. King’s blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
On Sunday following a two-year investigation, an in-depth investigative piece documented Withers, a man privy to King’s innermost circle, not only aided in galvanizing a movement, but also served as an alleged FBI informant.
As trusted as any of King’s advisors, Withers was given unlimited access and always present behind the scenes. His connection to King and other civil rights figures could be compared to the president’s personal photographer possessing carte blanche admission into the most private of moments. “The thing most stunning about this revelation is I feel he truly had the best access to the leadership of the civil rights movement of any photographer,” said Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck.
The paper was able to determine Withers was allegedly the informant when they received 7,000 pages of documents related to Withers and the civil rights movement. In one of the documents, censors forgot to delete an informant number. The reporter was able to link that number back to Withers based on a variety of circumstances including Withers own pictures. The file chronicles activities through the sixties and early seventies.
The documents also revealed that intelligence was provided by the informant the night prior to King’s death. Withers was with King that night, but was not present at the time of the assassination. It is not know how or if the information was a factor in King’s death.
It is stunning news, particularly for his family. “My father is not here to defend himself. This is a very, very strong, strong accusation,” said daughter Rosalind Withers in a statement to Commercial Appeal.
It is not known what could have been the motivating factor, but Peck said the paper is still petitioning the FBI to release Wither’s informant file.
“The FBI has never said it wasn’t true. They just said they were going to check to see how the information got out. We do know a file exists and we filing another request to further investigate,” Peck said.
To hear Linda Lawson’s interview with Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck, click here.
This piece was written by Linda Lawson, on special assignment for Politic365.com