Whither Ernest Withers?

I was taking my regular ocean walk near Marina del Rey when a friend called and said, "Hey, did you hear about your photographer friend Ernest?" Surprise, he said, your guy turned out to be a Civil Rights movement FBI informant.
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I was taking my regular ocean walk near Marina del Rey when a friend called and said, "Hey, did you hear about your photographer friend Ernest?" Surprise, he said, your guy turned out to be a Civil Rights movement FBI informant.

I was thunderstruck at this news. This African-American artist Ernest C. Withers had been a presence in my life from the time I met him in May 2002 until his death in September 2007. While attending a weeklong workshop at Ole Miss, our group was introduced to Ernest Withers' photographs at an exhibition sponsored by his artist friend Milly Moorhead, who was then the owner and director of the Southside Gallery in Courthouse Square, Oxford, Mississippi. (She is now the proprietor of Cuba West.)

I was so moved by his images on the wall: black women in gingham dresses with mile-wide smiles as they held up their voter registration cards; Martin Luther King's widow Coretta Scott King at the funeral of the civil rights leader; images of Negro League players; striking sanitation workers with their "I Am a Man" signs from just weeks before King's assassination.

His work was a living museum of a region I love but whose history is rich with the best and worst of our selves.

I told Milly how wonderful it would have been to meet Ernest Withers, assuming of course that he had long passed away. She said, "Why don't we call him and tell him you are on your way." Within minutes I was on the phone saying hello to Ernest and a few hours later I was greeting him at his Beale Street studio in Memphis.

Ernest and I hit it off immediately, though I think that was a common experience for anyone who met him. He was tall, well-dressed, with a dashiki hat. He beckoned me over to a roomful of file cabinets where he claimed to have about a million photographs. I knew that this person I was meeting was an American treasure. He proceeded to drive me around Memphis, including a stop at a segregation era black restaurant, and like a protective father, made sure that I got safely home to my downtown hotel. Everywhere we went, people knew Ernest. I called him the unofficial mayor of Memphis.

I learned that Ernest received all his training in photography from the U.S. Army during World War II. He was one of the first black police officers in Memphis after the war years, and at the time could not pull over a white driver. He used funny language with me: "B.I." and "A.I." that stood for "before integration" and "after integration."

I came very close to doing a documentary film about Ernest to be called Ernest C. Withers: I Am a Man. I wanted him to speak for himself and tell his own story, an extension of one the books dedicated to his work called Pictures Tell the Story. That film may be even more important now with so many stories yet to be told about this complicated man from a complicated era.

So what is there to say about this news three years after his death? The Commercial Appeal called its newspaper article, "Ernest Withers: Exposed," a play on his life's work. Even after reading the article, it's not clear how reliable all the information was that Ernest gave to the FBI. I know that he did not make much from his photographs because the trend in the 50s and 60s was for outside major magazines and newspapers like Life and the New York Times to buy photos from local photographers at a minimal cost. Sometimes photographers like Withers weren't even paid for their work, and certainly often didn't get photographic credit.

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. Former King advisor and friend Andrew Young responded to the revelation about Withers with this: "I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side." Margaret Kimberley was shocked at Young's comment and said, "The killing of Martin Luther King meant the effective end of one of the most successful mass movements in the history of the world. It is difficult to imagine that the information Withers provided to the FBI was not in some way connected with King's death." That's a connection that I'm not prepared to make.

We'll never know for sure what motivated Ernest to work as a paid informant to the FBI because he's not here to defend himself. Rumors of this association circled around Withers for years.

I suppose that's what bothers me the most. On the one hand we have this incredible legacy of this black photographer whose work stands on its own merits. On the other hand, we have the possibility of tainting this legacy with a revelation that he passed on information to federal law enforcement. Withers had a military and law enforcement background, so it's not a long stretch to imagine he would be comfortable with some G-men, but of course so many questions remain as to how his informing may have put lives at risk.

I know that if Ernest were here, I would want to meet with him and get his side of the story. He remains a fascinating figure in American history and on balance, still a man who left a deep impression. I hope his family will remain strong through these revelations and Ernest, who cannot speak for himself now, may he rest in peace.

Learn more about Ernest Withers and his association with the FBI:

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