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Some of the most enduring photos of the civil rights movement were taken by Ernest Withers. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Withers earned the trust of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. But as it turns out, he was secretly taking photos for the federal government as well. This week, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Wesley Lowery brings us the story of Withers in an adaptation of the podcast “Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret,” from Scripps News and Stitcher. 

Lowery starts by explaining how Withers earned his reputation as a chronicler of the civil rights movement. We tour a museum of Withers’ photographs with his daughter Roz, who deconstructs his famous “I Am a Man” photo of striking sanitation workers. Civil rights leader Andrew Young explains that without Withers’ photographs, they wouldn’t have had a movement. 

We then learn that after Withers’ death, a Memphis reporter named Marc Perrusquia followed up on an old lead about the photographer: that he was secretly working for the FBI. Perrusquia gained access to thousands of reports and photos taken for the FBI by Withers. We hear excerpts from several reports and meet the daughter of the agent who recruited Withers. During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the bureau recruited thousands of informants as part of a covert program originally created to monitor communists in America but ended up targeting the civil rights movement, as well as other individuals and groups. 

We close with reflections on Withers by people who knew him. While some believe Withers betrayed the cause of civil rights, others are more forgiving. They say his actions were part of a larger narrative about the U.S. government’s unchecked power to spy on its own citizens and extinguish ideas and movements it felt were a threat.

Dig Deeper

Listen: Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret

Watch: The Picture Taker” a television documentary about Ernest Withers, his work and legacy airs on PBS’s Independent Lens on January 30, 2023. After the broadcast it will be available for streaming on Independent Lens on PBS

Credits

Reporter: Wesley Lowery | Producer: Roy Hurst | Editors: Taki Telonidis and Ellen Weiss | Music composer: Edward “Tex” Miller | FBI readings: Corey Landis | Fact checker: Kelvin Bias

Reveal team: Production manager: Steven Rascón | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Claire Mullen and Kathryn Styer Martinez | Digital producers: Sarah Mirk and Kassie Navarro | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks: Marc Perrusquia, Kameel Stanley and Tracey Samuelson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Audio:Several thousand Negro demonstrators are participating in this largest civil rights demonstration ever in Memphis, Tennessee.
Al Letson:It’s March 28th, 1968.
Audio:Later today, as the march moves up towards city hall, Dr. Martin Luther King will speak to the striking workers and their sympathizers, now estimated to be somewhere between [inaudible]-
Al Letson:1,300 Black sanitation workers have been striking for just over six weeks. They complained of horrible working conditions, abuse, racism, and neglect, that had led to the deaths of two of their own. And today, Martin Luther King Jr. is flying in from New York to lead a march in support.
Martin Luther K…:You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.
Al Letson:Ernest Withers is there too. He’s taking photos. As usual. Ernest gathers the striking workers outside for group portrait. They stand in loose formation about 30 across several rows, deep, tightly packed. In the frame, an indelible image, hundreds of Black workers, each holding a sign with the same simple message, “I am a man.”
Audio:Dr. Martin Luther King’s massive downtown March on Memphis is now underway. Several thousand Negroes are marching toward city hall at this time. Many of the demonstrators are carrying the sign, “I am a man.” They stretch out for several blocks.
Al Letson:Ernest Withers was a legendary photographer. He took over a million photos before his death in 2007. Jackie Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Elvis, even President Richard Nixon, he photographed them all. But it was his photos of the civil rights movement that are his most stunning, most enduring images. Ernest didn’t just capture history. Ernest helped create it.
Andrew Young:Without a picture, we had no movement.
Al Letson:Andrew Young was an early leader in the civil rights movement, part of Martin Luther King Jr’s inner circle.
Andrew Young:Anytime we were sitting around talking, he was in there taking pictures. Martin appreciated him for what his pictures were doing to help publicize what we were doing.
Al Letson:Young says, “If you want to know what the fight for civil rights felt like, if you want to know what it looked like, just look at Ernest Withers photographs.” I grew up seeing his photographs all the time. I mean, they were a part of how I learned what the fight for civil rights was. Ernest’s eye and camera captured my heroes. And that was no small feat. For a photographer to be in those intimate places, to get close enough to really capture the moment, the subject has to trust you. It’s clear that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders admired Ernest persistence and his dedication.
Ernest Withers:The most important thing about doing anything is loyalty.
Al Letson:Loyalty, it mattered to Ernest. He talked about it in an interview before his death.
Ernest Withers:Whatever people expect of you and whatever you commit to do, do it. I wasn’t a hard hustler, but I had to have a real sense of being trusted and respected for my word being my bond.
Al Letson:To many, he was just Ernie. And when he called, King and other leaders always answered because they trusted him. But what if that trust was misplaced? Today, reporter, Wesley Lowry, host of the podcast’s Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret from Scripps News and Stitcher brings us the story. He starts at the museum created to memorialize Ernest’s legacy.
Rosyln Withers:This is the most iconic, this is what he’s noted for globally. That image is used. We get a request for that image from every part of the world. [inaudible]-
Wesley Lowery:Ernest’s daughter, Rosalyn Withers is showing me around the museum she founded after her father’s death. It’s on Beale Street, right in the heart of Memphis. A small selection of his photos hung in simple black frames lines the walls.
Rosyln Withers:… laid out. It’s civil rights on this wall. And at the top we actually note [inaudible]-
Wesley Lowery:Of all of his photographs, the most popular is one that Ernest took during that sanitation worker strike. It’s the original “I am a man” photograph. It’s one of the first pictures you see hanging in the gallery.
Rosyln Withers:It’s making a statement. And when you think about, why do you have to wear a sign to say that?
Wesley Lowery:To say that I am a man?
Rosyln Withers:Yes. Why would you need to do that? You have to have a sign to say that I am a man. But if you see it in this spectrum, it’s in multitude. Why is this group having to make that statement?

The fact that he had a tool that exposed the injustice, and he put it in front of the media the way he did, gave them life or let them keep their lives. Because a lot of times, life was taken. And things were covered up and buried, and none of this was known.
Wesley Lowery:But with a photo and a photo that could go out, then everyone would know what happened?
Rosyln Withers:Exactly.
Wesley Lowery:But here in Memphis, Ernest wasn’t just known as a civil rights photographer. He was the city’s family photographer. Birthday’s, graduations, weddings, proms, Ernest got to know everybody in Black Memphis. And he wasn’t just taking pictures; he was making personal connections.
Kobe Smith:The first time I met Ernest, who was in the living room in this house. He came and he took a family portrait.
Speaker 9:He was just like a father to me. He was just like a father to me.
Speaker 10:He literally chronicled my history from the time I was born up till I guess my years in the movement.
Kobe Smith:Every time I go to a movement activity, he’d be there. Every time we had a church rally or something, he’d be there.
Speaker 10:So he heard everything. He saw everything. He knew everything.
Wesley Lowery:But as the civil rights struggle grew, Ernest took on a steady flow of assignments from Black newspapers. The Black editors realized that this was their story, their movement, and so they needed to be on it. Ernest became their go-to photographer.
Audio:Little Rock, Arkansas, and the first phase of the trouble, the white population are determined to prevent colored students from going to the school their own children attend. [inaudible]-
Wesley Lowery:On the day, nine Black students were escorted by the National Guard into an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Ernest Withers was the one who shot the photo.
Audio:The jury has just come back and has returned a verdict of not guilty. [inaudible]-
Wesley Lowery:When two white men were acquitted of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Sumner, Mississippi. It was Ernest who got the picture.
Martin Luther K…:The year-old protest against city buses is officially called off.
Wesley Lowery:And Ernest was there, his camera shutter clicking, when Dr. Martin Luther King rode the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Martin Luther K…:The Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the buses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis.
Wesley Lowery:All of this was dangerous work for a Black photographer.
Rosyln Withers:It took courage for him to do what he did.
Wesley Lowery:That’s Ros Withers again, Ernest’s daughter.
Rosyln Withers:And that’s why he had a relationship with Martin King, because Martin recognized, that if it’s exposed, then that gives them that edge of awareness to take or make the next step. My brother refers to my father as being the Google of his time, making people aware of things, educating them.
Wesley Lowery:Those relationships between Ernest and King and the other civil rights leaders, they became more important over time, more intimate over the years.
Andrew Young:Martin had known with us since the Montgomery bus boycott days. They were friends.
Wesley Lowery:Andrew Young says that Ernest was always in the room. He had nearly unlimited access when Dr. King and his aids were in Memphis. Ernest was good company.
Andrew Young:He was a lot of fun. He was always telling jokes. I mean, he was like a comedian. Everybody knew him, and everybody liked him.
Wesley Lowery:He was like family. The guy in the corner with a camera, constantly snapping photos, seeing everything, hearing everything, and taking pictures of everyone. And when Ernest Withers died in 2007 at age 85, his funeral in Memphis was a state affair. The procession moved slowly down Beale Street, led by a brass band. Seemingly all of Memphis had come out that day. They were there to usher their homegrown hero to glory.
Rosyln Withers:Oh wow, that’s when I realized who my father was. I was like, “Wow.”
Wesley Lowery:The outpouring of admiration for Ernest Withers was so great that even his daughter was taken aback.
Rosyln Withers:They did a big celebration down Beale Street. And they did a motorcade throughout Memphis, places where my father had been.
Wesley Lowery:But that iconic reputation would soon come under intense scrutiny, because there was another story about Ernest, another story about his photos. And that story was about to emerge.

A few months later, across town in the newsroom of the Commercial Appeal, Ernest’s death had jogged the memory of reporter Marc Perrusquia. More than a decade earlier. A confidential source, an FBI agent, who had worked in Memphis during the civil rights era had handed Marc a stunning tip. The agent claimed that Ernest Withers, the legendary photographer, had been among the paid informants, who helped the FBI monitor civil rights activist. But in the years since it had remained just that, an unconfirmed tip. Marc had never pursued the story.
Marc Perrusquia:I just let the whole thing drop. I never did anything with it. And it was only until after Ernest died in 2007, at age 85, that I thought about this again.
Wesley Lowery:Marc realized that he might now have a way to figure out the details of Ernest’s time as an informant. Privacy rights are a lot weaker once someone has died, and that makes it harder for the government to shield information from reporters. So Marc wrote up a public records request.
Marc Perrusquia:I filed it, and I didn’t hear a thing back for months on it. As a matter of fact, I think the first thing that came back was that, “We have nothing.”
Wesley Lowery:Eight months after he sent in his second request, Marc walked into the office and found a thick letter sized envelope sitting on his chair, the return address, the FBI.
Al Letson:When we come back, we go inside that envelope and discover a massive US government surveillance operation against its own citizens.
Speaker 12:Douglas Richard Corty. Observed Corty in attendance at a Young Socialist Alliance meeting at the University of Wisconsin.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’re telling the story of a legendary civil rights photographer, Ernest Withers. 18 months after Withers’ death, Marc Perrusquia, a reporter for a Memphis newspaper, finally received a reply from the FBI. It was a letter-sized envelope. Marc was trying to verify a tip that Ernest had also been a paid informant for the feds. The documents inside the package could hold the answer, so he started combing through them, looking for clues, and he found one.
Marc Perrusquia:A code number in this sentence, and what it says at the bottom of the report is, “Ernest Columbus Withers was formally designated as ME338R.
Al Letson:ME338R, just six letters and numbers recorded in the official FBI documents. And Marc knew exactly what they meant.
Marc Perrusquia:ME stands for Memphis. 338 is a sequential number. He was the 338th informant in the office. The R at the back of that was a suffix that stood for racial informant, and these were individuals who were investigating what the FBI called racial matters, subversion, unrest issues that crossed over racial lines. And so Ernest had been recruited as a racial informant.
Al Letson:It was a start, but just a start. Marc had cracked open the door to Ernest’s secret pass, but there was so much more still hidden.
Marc Perrusquia:Because so what? I mean, you know he’s an informant, but what did he do? And so I’ve got that puzzle. I mean, it wasn’t like I could go rifle off a story.
Al Letson:It took Marc another two years of fighting, and eventually suing the FBI, to get the agency to admit that Ernest worked as an informant and to give up files and photos. They showed that between 1958 and 1976, he contributed more than 1,400 photos and written reports to the FBI vault. And Ernest wasn’t just selling pictures; he was selling information. Through today’s lens, it’s easy to pass judgment on Ernest, words like betrayal and traitor come to mind. But it’s important to understand the world he was living in back in the late 1950s and ’60s.
Audio:One of the best known buildings in Washington D.C. is the Department of Justice. Here are the headquarters of the nation’s crack law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Al Letson:A main focus of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, was going after what they called radical agitators and subversives. After World War II, that meant communists.
Audio:In recognizing a communist, physical appearance counts for nothing. If a person consistently reads and advocates the views expressed in a communist publication, he may be a communist.
Al Letson:Hoover’s obsession with communists led to the creation of COINTELPRO, a program to monitor communists in America. But it didn’t stop there. Over time, the program’s list of targets grew larger and larger, from the civil rights movement to the American Indian movement to the women’s movement, and a long list of individuals, including Martin Luther King. This is what Ernest got caught up in when he first crossed paths with the FBI in the late 1950s. Wesley Lowry, host of the podcast Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret, introduces us to Bill Lawrence, the man who recruited Ernest to work for the FBI.
Wesley Lowery:It’s four months before Christmas, 1967. And the Lawrence family is arranging themselves in the living room of their Memphis home. Dad settles into the upholstered easy chair.
Betty Lawrence:My father is sitting in that chair. It was the same chair that he sat in every night to write up his notes into a report.
Wesley Lowery:Mom stands behind him. And daughters Betty and Nancy flank their father. Everyone is dressed for the occasion, dark suits and dresses. Mom’s even wearing a double strand of pearls around her neck.
Betty Lawrence:That’s me on the right, my sister on the left, on the arms of the chair, and my mother’s standing behind my father, Margaret Lawrence, Nancy Lawrence, Betty Lawrence, Bill Lawrence.
Wesley Lowery:They all stare out across the living room to where a camera is perched to top a tripod. Behind it, the photographer Ernest Withers.
Betty Lawrence:He was on the other side of the living room, which wasn’t huge. I saw a dignified Black men with a camera on a stand. He took that picture. And Daddy was real grateful. And we got the prints that we sent out to the relatives at Christmas.
Wesley Lowery:The way Betty Lawrence puts it, Ernest was her daddy’s Black photographer friend. This was the first and only time she’d ever meet him.
Betty Lawrence:But I had heard of Ernest, I should say, for years over the dinner table. Daddy would tell funny anecdotes about various people that he had talked to that day, “Old Ernest said this,” and it was funny. So I felt like Ernest was somewhat a known quantity.
Wesley Lowery:And by the time Ernest came to the Lawrence house to take that family photo, he and Bill had known each other for several years.
Betty Lawrence:I knew that he and Daddy were friends. I still feel that way. You don’t send Christmas cards 10 years after you’ve seen a person, if they’re not your friend.
Wesley Lowery:Ernest Withers had taken hundreds of photos for Bill Lawrence, and the two men had had countless conversations. But these weren’t family photos. It wasn’t small talk. Bill was also known as Special Agent William H. Lawrence, the FBI’s top official in Memphis. He was in charge of the city’s domestic intelligence operation, chasing communists, ordering, spying, and for years running paid-informant Ernest Withers. How did Bill and Ernest first join forces? Why did Ernest sign up to help the FBI, to help it spy on a movement that he’d done so much to elevate? The truth is we may never really know. Both of the men are dead. Neither of them can speak for themselves, but we are able to do the next best thing. We spoke to their daughters, Rosalyn Withers and Betty Lawrence.

Ernest Withers and Bill Lawrence arrived in Memphis just a year apart. In 1945, Bill came to a new city for a new job.
Betty Lawrence:Of course, that was just at the beginning of the Cold War kind of, and communists, that was the big threat. And they were going to get subversives out. I don’t think that my father thought there were communists around every corner. I think he thought that there could be communists around most any corner, and I think he saw his job as figuring out which corners to keep track of and which he didn’t need to worry about.
Wesley Lowery:For Ernest, Memphis was home. It’s where he grew up, where his family had lived for generations. And in 1946, he was returning back from war. By that point, there were three children in the Withers’ family and five more were coming. Ros was the youngest, the only girl.
Rosyln Withers:Of course, I was his favorite, so…
Wesley Lowery:So you are a biased source.
Rosyln Withers:Yes. Seven brothers I was raised with, and being the only girl, and the last, of Dorothy and Ernest Withers, it meant a lot.
Wesley Lowery:When Ernest got back from the military, his father had wanted him to be a postman just like he had been.
Rosyln Withers:And he said no. He didn’t want to be a postman. He wanted to be a photographer.
Wesley Lowery:Timing turns out is everything, because the battle over desegregation was just about to begin. And the Black press needed journalists on the front lines.
Audio:Since before the Civil War, there have been Negroes in the South who pressed for equality, the right to take their place among men. As their educational standards rose, as their experience with the outside unsegregated world increased, the number of those who spoke out for equality also increased. Members [inaudible]-
Wesley Lowery:One place where the fight for Black equality was playing out was Fayette County, Tennessee, a rural stretch just east of Memphis. In the late 1950s, Black residents made up three quarters of the population. Most of them were sharecroppers. The land that they farmed belonged to someone else. But even though Black residents were the majority, the economic and political power was all white. In 1959, those Black sharecroppers began registering to vote, and the backlash from white landowners came swiftly. They kicked the farmers off the land. Mary Williams and her husband Early were the first Black family to be evicted.
Mary Williams:I remember so well the first night that we moved to Tent City, the ground was just really frozen real hard.
Early Williams:Me and her and the four kid, we lived in that tent, we cooked in that tent. We lept in that tent, 16-foot.
Wesley Lowery:By the end of December, dozens of evicted families were living in canvas tents with no water, no floors. The encampment became known as Tent City. Ernest was there to cover the story. Bill and the FBI were supposed to be there supporting the Black farmers, enforcing their rights to vote. But the records show that they were also spying on activists. In one FBI report dated December 23rd, 1960, there’s a photo included in the FBI files from Fayette County. We don’t know who wrote the report, but the second paragraph says, “This photograph was made available to special agents, William H. Lawrence and Joseph H. Kearney Jr. by freelance photographer Ernest C. Withers.” It goes on to list Ernest’s studio address, 319 Beale Street. This is the first photo, at least in the files that we have access to, that we know that Ernest supplied to the FBI.

We don’t know exactly what led Ernest to begin providing photos to the feds or what has early conversations with Bill Lawrence would’ve looked like. Did the bureau pressure him? Did they threaten him unless he worked with them? Or did Ernest seek them out? Was he eager to share information? Maybe Ernest thought that by cooperating with the FBI, he was protecting the movement.
Betty Lawrence:The FBI was not seen as the enemy, per se.
Wesley Lowery:Here’s Betty Lawrence again.
Betty Lawrence:The FBI was the federal law enforcement that could protect Black people in the face of white police or state troopers or sheriffs that weren’t going to protect them.
Wesley Lowery:Or as Ros Withers puts it..
Rosyln Withers:They were the best of the evils.
Wesley Lowery:The FBI was?
Rosyln Withers:Yeah, they were the best of the evils.
Wesley Lowery:Why was that?
Rosyln Withers:Because they would listen. Or they would adhere to what their complaints were. And sometimes they were used to step in to minimize just the evilness of Jim Crow.
Wesley Lowery:Mm-hmm. Times when the local law enforcement and government couldn’t be trusted, you might call the feds in.
Rosyln Withers:Could not. Exactly.
Wesley Lowery:So while a photo journalist or an activist today might say, “I’m never talking to the FBI,” knowing now what we know about what the FBI did during the Civil Rights Movement or surveillance, at the time, it might have been a different calculation.
Rosyln Withers:Well, at the time, when you think about what was happening, we didn’t even have the right to vote. So who are we to tell the FBI what to do?
Wesley Lowery:That last point that Ros is making is yet another reason why Ernest might have worked with the FBI. Essentially, it might not have been a choice. Sure, the FBI was a better option than the local police, but the FBI was also incredibly powerful. If it didn’t like you, it could use that power to destroy you. Maybe Ernest didn’t feel like he could say no. The truth is we just don’t know.

By February, Lawrence was petitioning his bosses back in Washington to put Ernest on the payroll. He wanted to make him an official confidential informant. Here’s an actor reading what Lawrence wrote in his files.
Speaker 12:Because of his many contacts in the racial field, plus his indicated willingness to cooperate with the Bureau, as attested by his recent furnishing of information, it is recommended that Withers be considered as a PCI.
Wesley Lowery:A PCI, a potential confidential informant. This was the start of Ernest’s new double life.

Ernest spent a lot of time in places like Fayette County. He was on assignment to cover the struggle for voting rights, but he was also on assignment for the FBI. At the time, a lot of white university students from the north were traveling south to help support the voting rights movement. One of them was 19-year-old Terry Brown, who, on a warm summer morning in 1965, was heading to Memphis with her friend Cash Williams, who was a local Black teenager, active in the movement. They were excited. Ernest Withers was going to take their picture.
Terry Brown:He invited Cash and me to come to his studio for a photograph, and we accepted.
Wesley Lowery:When the two arrived at Ernest’s studio in Memphis, he asked them to sit next to each other and to look into the camera.
Terry Brown:Cash has very dark skin, and he’s got shades on and a T-shirt and one leg crossed, and he looks awesome, cool, heavy duty, “Don’t mess with me. I’m this cool dude.” And I’m there in my summer clothes kind of staring out like, “What? You got a problem with this?”
Wesley Lowery:In the photo, Terry and Cash are sitting close. Her arm is resting a top, his leg. His arms wrapped around her back. A bit of her bra strap is peeking out on one shoulder. It’s intimate. It’s daring. It’s just the way Ernest probably wanted it, when he posed them. And looking at it today, Terry is right. They do look pretty badass in that photo, but that’s not how people would’ve seen the picture back in 1965.
Terry Brown:You might say, “Oh my God, her shoulder seems to be touching his chest. And her arm seems to be leaning on his leg. And they are way close to each other. What was going on?” This could either be viewed in 1965 as, “Yes, we’re standing up for integration and for people being with whom they want,” or, “Uh-oh, the roof is falling in on us. These Blacks and whites so close to each other, what has happened to the world?”
Wesley Lowery:The young white volunteers lived with local Black families. And of the many things that the white residents hated about the outsiders, this was the thing most likely to set them off. Throughout the history of American white supremacy, there has been an obsessive focus on the supposed purity of white women, a mixture of racism and patriarchy that was the driving force behind countless lynchings and a major factor in the southern resistance to desegregation. But the locals weren’t the only ones keeping a close watch on Terry and the other white volunteers.
Speaker 12:Memo dated 5/21/65. The writer while interviewing Ernest C. Withers, confidential source, discussed the general racial situation in Fayette County and surrounding rural areas with him-
Wesley Lowery:The writer here is Bill Lawrence.
Speaker 12:… and discussed the bureau’s internal security responsibilities and intelligence responsibilities.
Wesley Lowery:The point of all the surveillance, according to the FBI, was to monitor any potential communist influence in the movement. In one report, Lawrence warns that the left-leaning white volunteers are trying to build a cadre of young Negro teenagers in Fayette County. In another report, Lawrence writes that his informant, Ernest-
Speaker 12:… fears that many of these Negros will get a distorted view of society and are engaging in and experiencing a socialistic-oriented beatnik type experience, for which they are educationally, emotionally, and culturally ill-equipped to deal.
Wesley Lowery:It’s condescending and conspiratorial. Remember, all of this is about a voter registration campaign. And of course, it’s impossible to know if Ernest ever actually said any of these words, or if they were put in his mouth by Bill Lawrence and written into reports like these In pursuit of the bureau’s agenda. Before long, Lawrence had enlisted Ernest to help him build dossiers on many of the volunteers, including biographical details and photos. Terry Brown was one of 17 volunteers, who the FBI considered of particular interest, due to what Lawrence referred to as reports of subversive references. For each of the 17 volunteers, the FBI kept a file, a rundown of any and all connections that they could find between that person and any left-wing political group.
Speaker 12:Trina Lorraine Taylor, coordinator for the regional meeting of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs of America. Judith Anne Eisenscher: Judy Eisenscher attended a teenage conference of the Labor Youth League in Chicago, Illinois [inaudible]… Karen Susan Wolf, member of the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs of America… Olive Gutchess. In 1953, Verta Hunt, the sister of Olive Gutchess, was then a leader of the Communist Party in Vineland, New Jersey. Douglas Richard Cordy: observed Cordy in attendance at a Young Socialist Alliance meeting at the University of Wisconsin. Henry Brim Balser participated in a sitdown demonstration during the annual presidential review of the Cornell ROTC.,
Wesley Lowery:All of these photos were sent back to Washington to William C. Sullivan, the number two man at the FBI, who ran COINTELPRO, the Bureau’s covert operation for spying on and disrupting political groups that the FBI deemed subversive. Now that Terry Brown has seen her FBI file, she’s angry with Ernest. Sure, he did some good work, but for her, his collaboration with the feds to villainize her and the other activist was a betrayal, a betrayal of the very movement that he claimed to believe in.
Terry Brown:I mean, you can say he hustled to make a living wherever he could. He had eight children to feed. The tenant farmer, the sharecropper that got thrown off his land, he had children to feed. I can understand somebody, who is conservative, not supporting the Tennessee Voters Project, maybe not even supporting Martin Luther King, perhaps not even supporting integration. I don’t know. What I cannot justify is collaborating for money with the FBI against anybody’s right to vote. From my point of view is not forgivable. He caused a lot of harm. Yes, he did great pictures. Other people took pictures that maybe weren’t as stunning, maybe weren’t as popular, but we would’ve had pictures. But without Ernest Withers, we would not have had a lot of the suffering that we had.
Al Letson:Terry believes that what Ernest did was immoral, defining his legacy, mostly by his betrayal. But others he spied on see him differently.
Ernest Withers:I knew him, and I will tell anybody that man was not a snitch.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. When the story broke that Ernest Withers, one of the most respected and beloved civil rights photographers, had been an FBI informant, the reaction, it was surprising.
Andrew Young:I was really sorry that it leaked out the way it did, because I don’t think he deserved it.
Al Letson:Civil rights leader, Andrew Young, said he didn’t think Dr. King would’ve minded Ernest making a little money on the side.
Andrew Young:However he could get paid, whether it be Jet or the FBI, he should be encouraged to make a good living and tell a good story.
Al Letson:But other veterans of the movement were less forgiving. Dick Gregory, the activist and comedian, who had been personally targeted by the FBI during the ’60s, didn’t mince words. “Judas,” he called Ernest. Others felt understandably incensed.
Kobe Smith:I never thought that anybody would sell their own community out and Ernest of all people.
Al Letson:Kobe Smith had been a young activist in Memphis, when he first met Ernest, and over the years he grew to think of Ernest as a father.
Kobe Smith:We did not know that he was keeping up with us. We thought that he was just a person who was out there taking the pictures, of course.
Al Letson:For others, Ernest’s story was just a part of a much larger narrative: the government’s unchecked power to spy on its citizens, to decide whose ideas were dangerous and needed to be destroyed. Wesley Lowry, host of the podcast Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret, picks up the story.
Wesley Lowery:On January 17th, 1973, Ernest Withers aimed his camera at 1498 Marjorie Street in South Memphis. It was the local Black Panther headquarters. Willie Henry lived there with his wife and several others.
Willie Henry:I got to know Ernest Withers while I was in the Black Panther party.
Wesley Lowery:Ernest delivered three pictures of the house to the FBI. One was from across the street. Another was a closeup showing the steps leading to the front porch, and another was from the backyard showing a narrow rear entrance. This was the kind of information the FBI could have used to storm the house. Decades later, Willie L. Henry Jr. settles into a chair in his busy office in downtown Memphis. He was born here, and as a kid, he lived through segregation and the rise of the civil rights movement.
Willie Henry:I was a person who belonged to the NAACP as a child. But after Dr. King was killed, my attitude about what it might take changed. I was drawn to the Black Panther Party, because they believed in self-defense.
Wesley Lowery:The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland, California in 1966. It was an organization that advocated for Black nationalism, socialism, and armed self-defense, particularly against police brutality. It was also known for its social programs, free breakfast for kids, and medical clinics.
Willie Henry:I went to the Black Panther headquarters expecting to join the revolution with a gun, and found out that the revolution was consistent with the gospel, survival through service to the people. That’s what kept me alive.
Wesley Lowery:When the Black Panthers arrived in Memphis in early 1970, they became Ernest’s focus as an informant. The FBI and the Memphis Police had a team of informants that had infiltrated the Panthers, but Willie Henry says he just doesn’t buy that Ernest was one of them.
Willie Henry:Now, some people have said that Ernest was an informant. And every time I hear that, I really kind of chuckle, because if he was, he made a complete fool out of the people who were paying him. He had a lot of children, and there wasn’t a lot of money to be made as a photographer for Ernest. And I think he exploited the hell out of the Memphis Police Department, the FBI, and anybody else who thought that he would tell them anything substantive that would make a difference in anything they wanted to do. He fed them what he wanted them to know.
Wesley Lowery:That seems a bit generous, especially given some of the FBI reports. Here’s one in which Ernest details guns that were supposedly being stored inside the Panther house.
Speaker 12:Memphis, Tennessee, August 10th, 1973: source advised there is a 38 caliber pistol and a shotgun located at 1498 Marjorie. September 26th, 1973: they also have in their possession a 12-gauge shotgun, which is kept in the living room of this house. A fourth gun, a small caliber carbine, is kept in the possession of Willie Henry.
Wesley Lowery:But Willie was willing to explain away even this report. When we showed him the FBI records, he told us that all he sees is a man making some money for his family, that nothing in these records actually proves that Ernest did him any harm.
Willie Henry:Those who want to paint him as some kind of double agent, they’re so far from the truth. And they obviously don’t know him. I knew him. And I will tell anybody that man was not a snitch. He was just shrewd, and he used some people who were anxious for information and didn’t know when they were being fed fool. I almost said bovine fecal matter.
Wesley Lowery:In the battle between the FBI and the movement, Willie says, there’s nothing in these files that shakes his belief about which side Ernest Withers was on.
Willie Henry:There is part of my Black experience that toughens me. And I shake it off, because what could have been? I could have been any other Black Panthers that they killed. And that’s not impossible at this point. So when I say, “Did no harm,” a picture, my name, my address, I was in a life and death struggle. And if he didn’t make me bleed, or I didn’t get killed, he did no harm.

I see him as more of an asset than a deficit to everything we did. And I acknowledge the fact that the information that he shared could have been used to hurt a lot of people. But Ernest was a hero, and I don’t know a hero who doesn’t have flaws.
Wesley Lowery:While some of the information that Ernest was kicking up to the FBI I could have been used to hurt people, Willie says that he doesn’t see any evidence in these records that it actually was used that way. The real harm, the real destruction, was done by the government. And Willie isn’t the only person who Ernest informed on who’s arrived at this conclusion.

Do you feel betrayed by Ernest?
Rossetta Miller…:No, not really.
Wesley Lowery:Rosetta Miller-Perry worked for the Civil Rights Commission. In 1968, she was the field representative assigned to cover the sanitation worker strike in Memphis.

Do you think… No, you said you don’t feel betrayed. You don’t really feel betrayed.
Rossetta Miller…:No.
Wesley Lowery:Do you think you would’ve felt betrayed if you had known this at the time when you were younger, when you were still an activist in the streets, if you had found out?
Rossetta Miller…:If when I were younger, yes.
Wesley Lowery:Why?
Rossetta Miller…:Because I was more active and militant and angry and bitter. But at my age, now I’ve mellowed out. And I just feel that he did what he had to do to survive.
Wesley Lowery:But back then this would’ve been a major betrayal for you and for your colleagues?
Rossetta Miller…:Yes.
Wesley Lowery:And you would’ve felt at the time that it might have put you in danger.
Rossetta Miller…:True.
Wesley Lowery:According to the FBI files, Ernest gave the agency photos of Rosetta as well as intel.
Speaker 12:Memo 51368, regarding photographs of Rosetta Miller: on 3/12/68 ME338R, ghetto, furnished two photographs of Rosetta Miller, clerk, US Civil Rights Commission Office, Federal Office Building, Memphis, taken in February, 1968. He said, “She is the type who is a rumor monger and one who will give aid and comfort to the Black power groups.”
Rossetta Miller…:It has to hurt, when you hear something about you that you know that’s not true, and people are spreading things. I can’t say it didn’t hurt me, but it didn’t hurt my career.
Wesley Lowery:More than 50 years later, Rosetta is more generous to Ernest and less to the government.
Rossetta Miller…:We don’t trust. We’ve been lied to. So if there’s no element of trust, we’re going to feel this way forever.
Wesley Lowery:That if your choice is between believing the FBI or giving the benefit of the doubt to someone of known for decades, who is in the trenches with you, that’s an easy choice.
Rossetta Miller…:Yes. And from what we know about the FBI today, we don’t have any confidence, because we know now that they lie. They make up things. They do things. They create things. They destroy people.
Marc Perrusquia:I consider Ernie Weathers a civil rights hero.
Wesley Lowery:Again, reporter Marc Perrusquia. After breaking the news that Ernest was an FBI informant, Marc spent a few more years digging into the story. He eventually wrote a book called The Spy in Canaan.
Marc Perrusquia:But he was complicated, and his times were complicated. And what we see in this revelation is the warts that were never painted on the official portrait, which are helpful in understanding this period and all this hurtful, oppressive, intrusive work that the government was doing in spying on American citizens.
Wesley Lowery:For Marc, this has always been first and foremost a story of government overreach.
Marc Perrusquia:But if you’re going to tell a story like that, there is going to be some pain. There is. I mean, there’s just no way of getting around it. And it’s kind of painting a portrait as it really is, and not just glossing it, I mean putting the warts on the face and the whole deal, because we all have shortcomings. We all have failures, and this was his. It was. And I just think that the larger story trumps the pain and the inconvenience of it all.
Wesley Lowery:What did you think when this story first broke?
Daphne McFerren:Wow. When the story broke that he was an FBI agent, I was just, “Wow.”
Wesley Lowery:This is Daphne McFerren. Her parents, Viola and John, helped lead the voter registration movement in Fayette County, Tennessee. Daphne now runs the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. And before her parents died, she interviewed them, asking them how they felt after learning that Ernest Withers had been an informant.
Daphne McFerren:So my mother’s response was, she wasn’t surprised at all. She didn’t know, but she wasn’t surprised at all. And she said, and I’m paraphrasing, that basically he was a complicated person. My father, on the other hand, he just threw up his hands in exasperation. And I knew my father well enough. When he passed, he was 94. He’d seen a lot, he’d been through a lot, and he suffered both mentally and physically, because of his involvement in the civil rights movement. And my father and mother were both, what we called back in the day, race people. What that means is that your obligation to your race comes first. You don’t out your people. You don’t do things that make your people suffer. You protect your people. And that’s what it means to be a race person.

But he also understood that people like Withers are created by this country, which has had some of the most oppressive attitudes, conditions, and reactions to African Americans. The Withers’ conduct was created by the very country, which persecuted them as activists. I think there was an unwillingness to speak negatively about Withers, because, while they clearly did not approve of misconduct and would have been absolutely livid had they known that he was an informant in the ’60s, time and perspective gave them a long-term view of how they should view sort of people’s contributions in people. And also they have some understanding of how people can be pushed into doing things, which on the outside appear of their own volition, but in fact, are you ever really in control when you control nothing? So…
Wesley Lowery:It’s interesting, because as we talk with a lot of activists, and as I’ve talked with activists from this time, people who knew Ernest, people who were betrayed by Ernest, we get a lot of that perspective, this sense that, “Well, at the time, we would’ve been really upset about this. But maybe he didn’t really have a choice. Or was this truly of their own volition, given the power dynamics at the time, the power of the FBI, the relative lack of power that Ernest as a Black man would’ve had?” What are the different factors at play there?
Daphne McFerren:Well, I don’t think it’s that complicated. I think what we have to look at, and what I look at, is Mr. Weathers made a decision. He made a decision that he wanted to be an FBI informant. It was a choice. For whatever reasons, this worked for him. And this was a role he was comfortable with. Yes, there are forces that do impact how we navigate the world. But especially this, I think we have to say there was, with respect to Mr. Withers’ actions, some decision on his part to do this.

And let me make a distinction here. My folks did talk to the FBI, clearly not as informants, but to get protection. There were threats against my parents all the time. And even in the evictions, the sharecroppers had to talk to FBI agents, because the FBI agents wanted to know who were the white farmers who evicted them, what happened to them, when did they try to vote, and that kind of thing. So they did see the federal government as providing some protection against the white citizen council and racists in their own communities. That is a distinction between being a member of the team. They understood the limits of what the federal government could do. In a nutshell, I would have to say at the end of the day, yes, there were external forces, but he made a decision to do this.
Al Letson:Thanks to Wesley Lowry, host of the podcast Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret, a co-production of Scripps News and Stitcher. You can hear the entire series wherever you listen to podcasts. Our show was produced by Roy Hurst. Taki Telonidis and Ellen Weiss edited the show. The music was composed by Edward “Tex” Miller. Our FBI documents were brought to life by actor Corey Landis. Special thanks to reporter and author, Marc Perrusquia, Camille Stanley, and Tracy Samuelson. The fact checker was Kelvin Bias. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Steven Rascón. Sound designed by the dynamic duo, JayBreezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, Arruda. Our post-production team is The Justice League, and this weekend includes Kathryn Styer Martinez. Our digital producer this week is Kassie Navarro. Our interim CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Meyers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camarato, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Kassandra Navarro

Kassandra Navarro (she/her) is the director of audience development for Reveal. She leads social, newsletter, website and impact outreach strategies and efforts for Reveal’s reporting on all platforms. She also oversees Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal’s investigations in their communities. She previously was the founding social editor at The 19th and has worked in digital and social strategy in nonprofit and public-sector spaces for more than 11 years. Navarro is based in Austin, Texas.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.