Storied Civil Rights Photographer Was Paid FBI Informant

The Spook Who Sat by the Door has nothing on Ernest C. Withers.

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ernestwithers
Ernest C. Withers

It seems that the man who took many iconic photos from the civil rights movement was a paid FBI informant. Ernest C. Withers took the photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala.; he captured the image of black sanitation workers carrying "I Am a Man" signs in Memphis; he was the only photojournalist to document the entire trial in the murder of Emmett Till; he was in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel on the night King was assassinated. Withers, who passed away in 2007 at age 85, was also a paid FBI informant. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis published the results of a two-year investigation that showed Withers had worked closely with two FBI agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights movement. Withers, a former police officer nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, was known for the trust he engendered among high-ranking civil rights leaders, including King. In our best Willona Woods voice, "Ain't that a blip," followed closely by Florida Evans', "Damn! Damn! Damn!" This real-life situation is juicier than the fictional The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Withers obviously skipped over the part about spying on the government agency, not the actual people. Dusting off our copies of The Spook Who Sat by the Door and shaking our heads over here at The Root.

Read more if you can stomach it at The New York Times.