The Se­cret Life of Ernest Withers

In his new book, BLUFF CITY, Pre­ston Lauter­bach tells the story of a crit­i­cally lauded black pho­tog­ra­pher, high­light­ing new ev­i­dence about events lead­ing to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY PRE­STON LAUTER­BACH

A new book about a crit­i­cally lauded black pho­tog­ra­pher high­lights new eiv­i­dence about the death of MLK.

Ernest Withers Was a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher when few African-amer­i­cans were. A tal­ented hus­tler who could nav­i­gate a bru­tally seg­re­gated South, he had a canny eye for his­tory in the mak­ing at a time when his­tory was broil­ing, dur­ing the 1950s and ’60s. His work cov­er­ing the civil rights move­ment ap­peared in news­pa­pers across the coun­try.

A na­tive of Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, he was there when Elvis Pres­ley broke through, cap­tur­ing him vis­it­ing the black singers in the Beale Street clubs that in­spired his mu­sic (and his hips). He also pro­duced pow­er­ful im­ages of the Emmett Till mur­der trial in 1955; the de­seg­re­ga­tion of Cen­tral High School in Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, in 1957; and the rise of the Black Power move­ment. One of his most fa­mous pho­tos cap­tures Martin Luther King Jr. rid­ing a newly in­te­grated bus in Mont­gomery, Al­abama, af­ter that boy­cott ended in 1956.

Withers sup­ported so­cial jus­tice, but his legacy is tan­gled by a se­cret as­so­ci­a­tion with the FBI. Like many of his gen­er­a­tion, he was a pa­triot; he’d served in the Army dur­ing World War II and was dis­turbed by the anti-war move­ment of the 1960s. He was a man of his time, too, in his dis­trust of Com­mu­nists, whom FBI Di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover be­lieved were be­hind King’s civil rights move­ment and mil­i­tant Black Power lead­ers like Eldridge Cleaver. Such feel­ings, Pre­ston Lauter­bach sug­gests in his new book, Bluff City: The Se­cretLife of Pho­tog­ra­pher Ernest Withers (W.W. Nor­ton & Co., Jan­uary 15), were be­hind the de­ci­sion of an African-amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher to be­come a well-com­pen­sated in­for­mant against black ac­tivists.

Hoover’s Mem­phis agents were tasked with mon­i­tor­ing lo­cal civil rights lead­ers, in­clud­ing the Rev­erend James Law­son, co-founder of the Com­mit­tee on the Move to Equal­ity (COME), which was com­mit­ted to civil disobe­di­ence, and John B. Smith of the In­vaders, a Black Power off­shoot openly de­fi­ant of King’s phi­los­o­phy of non­vi­o­lence. Be­cause of his cov­er­age of the move­ment, Withers was trusted and in­vited to lo­cal meet­ings. In turn, his photo stu­dio on Beale Street was an un­of­fi­cial In­vaders han­gout. He fed his find­ings to his FBI con­tact, Wil­liam Lawrence.

That dou­ble life came to a head dur­ing the Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion work­ers strike, which be­gan af­ter the ac­ci­den­tal death of two work­ers in Fe­bru­ary 1968. Hun­dreds went on strike, and a march was planned for March 22, then resched­uled, be­cause of a freak snow­storm, for March 28. Law­son was chair­man of the strike com­mit­tee and in­vited King to speak at the march.

As Lauter­bach writes, Mem­phis au­thor­i­ties were un­pre­pared for a mass march; the largest up to that point had topped out in the low hun­dreds. This one would mea­sure up to the 1965 Selma-mont­gomery cam­paign in Al­abama.

On the night of March 27, King was in New York City, at the home of singer and ac­tivist Harry Be­la­fonte. King, the first pres­i­dent of the South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence (SCLC), es­tab­lished in 1957 to end seg­re­ga­tion, had been tire­lessly pro­mot­ing his Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign—with its shift from so­cial to eco­nomic in­jus­tice—and a planned march on Wash­ing­ton. (The cam­paign’s first phase was the erec­tion of a shan­ty­town, to be­come known as Res­ur­rec­tion City, on the Na­tional Mall, an idea that alarmed Hoover.) King was ex­hausted, but he and Be­la­fonte spoke late into the night. At dawn he boarded a flight for Mem­phis.

King ar­rived a half hour late, at 10:30 a.m. When he stepped out of his car, the large crowd be­came hys­ter­i­cal with ex­cite­ment. As the march be­gan, writes Lauter­bach, “King could have lifted both feet and been pro­pelled by the great mo­men­tum be­hind him.”

Many of the thou­sands of pro­test­ers were car­ry­ing “I Am a Man” signs. Withers had suggested the signs and dis­trib­uted the lum­ber to make them, and they would fea­ture promi­nently in the pho­tographs he’d take that day.

His Rollei­flex also cap­tured the clearly shaken King at the head of the crowd, his arm linked with the Rev. Ralph Aber­nathy, his top man for over a decade. It had been 12 years since the pho­tog­ra­pher had taken the im­age of King on a Mont­gomery bus, Aber­nathy at his side. “King had been 27 on that day in 1956,” writes Lauter­bach. “Now he was crowd­ing 40. He looked 50.”

High school fol­low­ers of Smith, some armed with tire irons and Molo­tov cock­tails, be­gan to use the “I Am a Man” signs as weapons. Soon con­flicts broke out be­tween those pro­test­ers and over 300 of­fi­cers from the city’s po­lice de­part­ment. The de­mon­stra­tion quickly turned into a riot. “King had stood in the eye of ex­treme vi­o­lence be­fore, with­stand­ing a po­lice at­tack in Selma, a racist mob at­tack in [Chicago sub­urb] Cicero and a bomb ex­plo­sion at his home in Mont­gomery,” says Lauter­bach. “But never be­fore had one of his marches turned vi­o­lent from within.”

Af­ter less than half an hour, King was spir­ited away in a car. Law­son said later that he had urged King to leave but that he had re­fused un­til he was prac­ti­cally forced into the car. Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, how­ever, would say that King aban­doned the march, fear­ing for his safety, with­out try­ing to stop any of the vi­o­lence or prop­erty de­struc­tion. “The As­sis­tant Chief of Po­lice,” writes Lauter­bach, “would quote King as say­ing, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ The quote would form an im­por­tant part of an FBI smear cam­paign to come.”

In the end, the po­lice beat and gassed pro­test­ers, ar­rest­ing 300 and shoot­ing four al­leged loot­ers. Along the city’s famed Beale Street, “glass shards from bro­ken store win­dows and frac­tured two-by-twos used for the signs choked the gut­ters.”

MEM­PHIS BEATS Withers was 34 and had been work­ing pro­fes­sion­ally for a decade when he took this photo of Pres­ley with singer Brook Ben­ton in Mem­phis in 1957. Like other black jour­nal­ists, Withers was in­tent on pre­sent­ing a true por­trait of black life, like the rich mu­sic scene on Beale Street where Pres­ley hung out. “In the eyes of the African-amer­i­can press,” writes Lauter­bach, “white me­dia dis­sem­i­nated de­mean­ing stereo­types of black peo­ple, di­min­ished black achieve­ments and high­lighted black de­bauch­ery.” Op­po­site: The Na­tional Guard on Beale Street af­ter the March 28, 1968, riot.

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