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.
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.