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 - - Contents - BY PRE­STON LAUTER­BACH

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

rnest 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 Se­cret Life 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.”

The fol­low­ing ex­cerpt from bluff city: the se­cret life of pho­tog­ra­pher ernest withers, by Pre­ston Lauter­bach, be­gins af­ter the march. Reprinted with per­mis­sion of the pub­lisher. All rights re­served. ƣ

con­ver­sa­tion with King in Mem­phis. Agents heard King tell Le­vi­son that a lo­cal Black Power group called the In­vaders had in­cited the riot.

In the con­fu­sion of March 28, 1968, it’s easy to lose sight of the day’s key is­sue: the pos­si­bil­ity that the FBI sab­o­taged the march. The riot hap­pened dur­ing a month of in­creas­ing fed­eral anx­i­ety over the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign and two days af­ter the FBI pro­posed smear­ing King to cur­tail sup­port among po­ten­tial sup­port­ers. If the bureau had in­deed en­cour­aged the riot, it would need some­one else to blame. Cre­at­ing a wedge be­tween King and Black Power ɿt the bureau’s ob­jec­tive of pre­vent­ing the rise of a black messiah who could elec­trify and unify the black na­tion­al­ist move­ment, be­gin­ning a true black revo­lu­tion. The con­duct of Lawrence, Withers’s long­time han­dler, in doc­u­ment­ing the riot pro­vides clues of treach­ery.

While King smoked in bed, Withers con­ferred with Lawrence. The next day, Lawrence ɿnished a long memo about the riot, which the Mem­phis ofɿce sent to Hoover.

Lawrence had three sources of in­for­ma­tion about the demon­stra­tion: Withers, Mem­phis Press-scim­i­tar re­porter Kay Pittman Black and a third party whose ob­ser­va­tions closely match those of Mem­phis po­lice un­der­cover ofɿcer Mar­rell Mc­col­lough, who had in­ɿl­trated the In­vaders. Ad­dress­ing the fac­tors that con­trib­uted to the vi­o­lence, Lawrence wrote that Law­son’s COME strike sup­port group had un­wit­tingly armed any­one who showed up to march.

The COME group handed out hun­dreds of pre­pared plac­ards made of card­board and car­ried on long 4-foot pine poles. Be­fore the march, it was ap­par­ent to these three sources that many of the young peo­ple were plan­ning to use the plac­ards as sticks and clubs be­cause they were in­dis­crim­i­nately rip­ping the card­board away, leav­ing a 4-foot pole in their hands, which many of them waved in a threat­en­ing man­ner.

Lawrence was re­fer­ring here to the “I Am a Man” strike sup­port posters. Ad­dress­ing how the two-by-twos be­came weapons, Lawrence’s “source one” for this memo—withers—made the most speciɿc ac­cu­sa­tion against an In­vaders leader in pro­vok­ing the riot. “Source one pointed out that prior to the start of the March 28, 1968 march that John [B.] Smith and some of his as­so­ciates were in his opin­ion in­cit­ing to vi­o­lence in that they were in­dis­crim­i­nately giv­ing out the 4-foot pine poles to var­i­ous teenage young­sters in the area and John Smith was heard by source one to tell these young­sters, iden­ti­ties not known, not to be afraid to use these sticks. He did not elab­o­rate as to what he meant.”

Later in the sum­mary, Lawrence wrote, Withers “pointed out that as men­tioned…these in­di­vid­u­als [the In­vaders] had done much by their pre­vi­ous state­ments and ac­tions…to in­cite some of the more ig­no­rant and greedy youths who were in the march.” By “pre­vi­ous state­ments and ac­tions,” Withers re­port­edly meant the Molo­tov cock­tails that the In­vaders had dis­trib­uted three weeks be­fore the march.

Lawrence’s—and the Fbi’s—ex­pla­na­tion for the ori­gins of the riot was that COME had handed out the sticks, the In­vaders had in­structed the youths in us­ing them as weapons and a non­vi­o­lent march had be­come a riot.

But there are prob­lems with this for­mu­la­tion. For one, In­vaders leader Smith de­nied that he had handed out sign­posts to young­sters at the march or en­cour­aged their use as weapons. Such a de­nial is what one would ex­pect, but Smith got some pretty strong backup from Mc­col­lough, the po­lice ofɿcer who’d in­ɿl­trated the In­vaders.

In , Mc­cul­lough testiɿed to the House Select Com­mit­tee on As­sas­si­na­tions (HSCA), which was con­duct­ing an in­quiry into the King as­sas­si­na­tion. Mc­col­lough cor­rob­o­rated Smith’s claim.

An­other point in fa­vor of Smith came out of the HSCA in­quiry it­self. The com­mit­tee con­ducted a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the riot, us­ing its power to sub­poena FBI ɿles and gain ac­cess to conɿ­den­tial sources. It stud­ied Lawrence’s March 29 memo to head­quar­ters and his source’s ac­cu­sa­tion that Smith had handed out the two-by-twos and told peo­ple to not be afraid to use them. The HSCA took tes­ti­mony from that conɿ­den­tial source and found dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the in­for­mant’s tes­ti­mony and the state­ments in Lawrence’s memo, con­clud­ing, “The in­for­mant de­nied hav­ing pro­vided cer­tain in­for­ma­tion that had been at­trib­uted to him and placed in his in­for­mant ɿle.”

When Lawrence him­self testiɿed be­fore the com­mit­tee, he said his sources of in­for­ma­tion on the riot and the In­vaders had been ac­cu­rate. Af­ter­ward, Lawrence told Withers that the HSCA “had asked me if info at­trib­uted to [Withers]—in my let­ter­head memo [of March 29] had ac­tu­ally been fur­nished by him—and I had to re­ply that it had been.”

Lawrence ac­knowl­edged that he couldn’t tell Withers what to say to the HSCA but warned him that “deny­ing that he had ever fur­nished info which I at­trib­uted to him…would nev­er­the­less cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion in­di­cat­ing that He or I had per­jured our­selves in that I said one thing and he an­other.”


The HSCA lev­eled no per­jury charges but con­cluded that “the dis­crep­ancy tar­nished the ev­i­dence given by both the Bureau and the in­for­mant, and it left the com­mit­tee with a mea­sure of un­cer­tainty about the scope of FBI in­volve­ment with the In­vaders.”

As Lawrence said, some­one per­jured him­self about the In­vaders in the riot. All the ev­i­dence in­di­cates that it was Lawrence who fab­ri­cated the story of Smith in­cit­ing vi­o­lence and mis­at­tributed this ver­sion of events to his “source one” in­for­mant, Withers.

In the months fol­low­ing the 1968 riot, Lawrence would re­peat the Smith story with greater em­bel­lish­ment. In a lengthy re­port dated May 6, 1968, he up­graded the state­ment about the sticks to a di­rect quote: “[Withers]…re­called hear­ing John B. Smith tell some of the young­sters, ‘Don’t be afraid to use these sticks if you have to.’”

Per­haps the strangest thing is that Lawrence never pur­sued the mat­ter fur­ther, in­di­cat­ing that his case against Smith must have been weak. The FBI never ar­rested or pros­e­cuted Smith on charges as­so­ci­ated with the riot, de­spite the ev­i­dence in its ɿles that he had in­cited it. The ev­i­dence shows that the FBI falsely used Withers as a source of un­true in­for­ma­tion—a rev­e­la­tion, if not one that clar­iɿes the bureau’s role, or Withers’s, in spoil­ing King’s ɿnal march.

While Lawrence in­ac­cu­rately held Smith re­spon­si­ble for in­cit­ing vi­o­lence in his March 29 memo, he failed to dis­close his in­for­mant’s own prox­im­ity to the signs used that day as weapons.

In a May 6, 1968, re­port, Lawrence wrote, “[Withers] pointed out that the COME group had or­ga­nized the march and had made a bad mis­take by giv­ing out sev­eral hun­dred pre-con­structed paste­board plac­ards which had been sta­pled onto long pine poles or sticks.”the dis­tri­bu­tion of the poles ap­pears here as a “bad mis­take” on COME’S part, ac­cord­ing to Withers, the per­son who brought the lum­ber to the strike.

Lawrence re­hashed the story of the two-by-twos even more vividly later in the re­port. He wrote: “On the night of March 28, 1968, [Withers] ad­vised that the big­gest deɿnite con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the vi­o­lence in his opin­ion was the fact that the COME group had for the ɿrst time in any of their nu­mer­ous daily marches fur­nished wooden sticks to the marchers, as pre­vi­ously they had


merely used card­board plac­ards which could not be­come lethal weapons. He pointed out that giv­ing out sev­eral hun­dred hard pine sticks was tan­ta­mount to giv­ing out an equal num­ber of base­ball bats which could eas­ily be used to break win­dows and which could be used as weapons by the par­tic­i­pants in the march.”

Again, it seems strange that the per­son who su­per­vised bring­ing the sticks to the march—withers—could so quickly claim that what he had done “was tan­ta­mount to giv­ing out an equal num­ber of base­ball bats.”

In nei­ther in­stance did Lawrence note Withers’s role in putting the two-by-twos into play, though he seems to have been aware of it. In a memo to the Mem­phis ofɿce dated April 2, 1968, Lawrence pro­vided deeper de­tail on the ori­gin of the sticks. “[First name un­known] Har­vey, brother of Fred Har­vey, and who is a teacher at Jeter High School, ear­lier in the week… rent[ed] a Skil saw which was taken to the Min­i­mum Salary Ofɿce of AME Church next to Clay­born Tem­ple, where J.C. Brown cut the pine wood into four-foot lengths for the plac­ards.”

Much of this memo has been redacted. But those names—har­vey and Brown—cor­rob­o­rate what Withers told a Ger­man so­ci­ol­o­gist in 1982: “If any­body is…re­spon­si­ble for that riot up there, as any­body, I might be re­spon­si­ble…be­cause I and Har­vey and J.C. Brown back here went down…there to rent the saw to cut the sticks that was used in the riot, and we cer­tainly wasn’t do­ing it by plan.”

Also on April 2, Hoover may have di­rected the use of FBI funds for some yet un­known en­deavor. A tele­type from him to the Mem­phis bureau that day reads in part (the doc­u­ment is heav­ily redacted): “In the event it is nec­es­sary to [name redacted] for ac­tual ex­penses in­curred, au­thor­ity is granted to pay him up to seven ɿve dol­lars. If pay­ment is made, ob­tain item­ized ac­count­ing of his ex­penses.” Lawrence’s sig­na­ture ap­pears, ac­knowl­edg­ing re­ceipt of Hoover’s memo.

Per­haps the FBI Mem­phis memo de­scrib­ing the con­struc­tion of the signs and the tele­type with Hoover’s pay­ment au­tho­riza­tion also con­tain in­for­ma­tion link­ing the FBI to the two-by-twos. But un­til we are able to view unredacted copies of both, we’ll never know.

lauter­bach notes that it re­mains un­clear whether the signs Withers sug­gested were to cre­ate a stronger vis­ual or if, as the FBI sug­gested, there was a hope of en­cour­ag­ing vi­o­lence among the strik­ers. Whatever the in­ten­tion, Withers’s ac­tion trag­i­cally al­tered the course of the civil rights move­ment. King felt the vi­o­lence was a stain on his lead­er­ship. A week later, on April 3, he would re­turn to Mem­phis to re­state his plea for non­vi­o­lence, de­liv­er­ing his tri­umphant “Moun­tain­top” speech (“I have seen the promised land.…”), which poignantly hinted at his mor­tal­ity.

The fol­low­ing evening, on April 4, King was shot on the bal­cony of the Lor­raine Mo­tel by James Earl Ray. “If the win­dows on Beale Street hadn’t been bro­ken,” Lauter­bach writes, “King would have had no rea­son to come back.”

Mem­phis min­is­ters, black and white, pleaded with Mayor Henry Loeb, to con­cede to the union’s de­mands. He would not. It took Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son to force his hand. A so­lu­tion was ne­go­ti­ated on April 16, ending the strike. Work­ers re­ceived a pay raise of 15 cents an hour.

King’s Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign went for­ward. Res­ur­rec­tion City, the first stage, was erected on the Na­tional Mall (pop­u­la­tion 3,000), cul­mi­nat­ing in the Sol­i­dar­ity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace and Free­dom on June 19, 1968.

It wasn’t un­til 2010, three years af­ter Withers’s death, that his work for the FBI was re­vealed in a se­ries of ar­ti­cles by Marc Per­rusquia in The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal, a Mem­phis news­pa­per that sued the FBI to open the Withers in­for­mant file, which Lauter­bach used to re­search Bluff City. De­spite in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence, Lauter­bach writes that even dur­ing Withers’s years as an in­for­mant, his “courage and com­mit­ment through the most phys­i­cally threat­en­ing and emo­tion­ally try­ing times of his life are be­yond re­proach.”

Withers’s as­so­ci­a­tion with the FBI ended in the late ’70s. The decades of com­pen­sa­tion al­lowed the pho­tog­ra­pher to put his eight chil­dren through col­lege. By the ’80s, his work was fa­mous, ex­hib­ited all over the coun­try. He spent the last two decades of his life, un­til his death in 2007, pub­lish­ing books and de­liv­er­ing lec­tures.

The Withers Col­lec­tion Mu­seum and Gallery re­mains on Beale Street, ev­i­dence of a right­fully cel­e­brated if im­per­fect artist—a man who “personifies the flawed hero,” writes Lauter­bach. “I think we need to em­brace him for all he was.”


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.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. LAY DESPONDENT.Af­ter leav­ing the scene of the riot, he and his group had checked into the Hol­i­day Inn River­mont, a high-rise ho­tel over­look­ing the Mis­sis­sippi, about a mile and a half from Zhere the march be­gan 7hey took a suite on the eighth ʀoor King had got into bed fully clothed and pulled up the cov­ers.While burn­ing through a chain of Salem cig­a­rettes, he spoke to Aber­nathy. “Maybe we just have to ad­mit that the day of vi­o­lence is here,” King said. “Maybe we just have to give up and let vi­o­lence take its course.”Aber­nathy had never seen King like this, nor heard him talk this way. In his de­pres­sion, King con­tem­plated call­ing off the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign.To lift King’s mood, an­other aide ar­ranged for an im­por­tant friend to get in touch. Stan­ley Le­vi­son phoned King’s room from his home in New York City. An ad­viser and fundraiser for King’s SCLC, Le­vi­son had been a faithful friend for many years. As a for­mer afɿli­ate of the Com­mu­nist Party 8SA, Levin­son had been Hoover’s justiɿ­ca­tion for in­ves­ti­gat­ing King, as a pos­si­ble “Red” in­ʀuence on the civil rights move­ment.The bureau tapped Le­vi­son’s phone and picked up his

BEAR­ING WIT­NESS “Withers got his break in jour­nal­ism at the mo­ment pho­tog­ra­phy emerged as the most pow­er­ful new weapon in the re­bel­lion against racism,” writes Lauter­bach. That mo­ment was the killing of Em­mett Till and the Mis­sis­sippi trial of his ac­cused killers (far right), cov­ered by Withers. He also cap­tured Melba Pat­tillo Beals (left), one of the Lit­tle Rock Nine, in 1957, and mem­bers of the In­vaders, an off­shoot of Black Power, ac­cused by the FBI of ag­i­tat­ing vi­o­lence at the March 28, 1968 march.

A CHILD IN TIME Some ar­gue that, in work­ing for the FBI, Withers be­trayed his peo­ple. But his un­par­al­leled ac­cess to the in­ner work­ings of the civil rights move­ment also pro­vided in­deli­ble im­ages that gal­va­nized sup­port for King and other lead­ers. Withers’s gift for cap­tur­ing in­ti­mate emo­tional mo­ments was sig­niɿ­cant.

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