Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement
He provided agency with insider's view of volatile period
By Marc Perrusquia
Memphis Commercial Appeal
September 12, 2010
At the top of the stairs he saw the blood, a large
pool of it, splashed across the balcony like a
grisly, abstract painting. Instinctively, Ernest
Withers raised his camera. This wasn't just a
murder. This was history.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here a few hours
earlier chatting with aides when a sniper squeezed
off a shot from a hunting rifle.
Now, as night set over Memphis, Withers was on the
Slipping past a police barricade, the enterprising
Beale Street newsman made his way to room 306 at
the Lorraine Motel -- King's room -- and walked
in. Ralph Abernathy and the others hardly blinked.
After all, this was Ernest C. Withers. He'd
marched with King, and sat in on some of the
movement's sensitive strategy meetings.
A veteran freelancer for America's black press,
Withers was known as "the original civil rights
photographer," an insider who'd covered it all,
from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the
movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis,
the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968
sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and
As other journalists languished in the Lorraine
courtyard, Withers' camera captured the scene:
Bernard Lee, tie undone, looking weary yet fiery.
Andrew Young raising his palm to keep order.
Ben Hooks and Harold Middlebrook gazing pensively
as King's briefcase sits nearby, opened, as if
awaiting his return.
The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers
on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they
invited in that night was an FBI informant --
evidence of how far the agency went to spy on
private citizens in Memphis during one of the
nation's most volatile periods.
Withers shadowed King the day before his murder,
snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting
the civil rights leader had with suspected black
He later divulged details gleaned at King's
funeral in Atlanta, reporting that two Southern
Christian Leadership Conference staffers blamed
for an earlier Beale Street riot planned to return
to Memphis "to resume ... support of sanitation
strike'' -- to stir up more trouble, as the FBI
The April 10, 1968, report, which identifies
Withers only by his confidential informant number
-- ME 338-R -- is among numerous reports reviewed
by The Commercial Appeal that reveal a covert,
previously unknown side of the beloved
photographer who died in 2007 at age 85.
Those reports portray Withers as a prolific
informant who, from at least 1968 until 1970,
passed on tips and photographs detailing an
insider's view of politics, business and everyday
life in Memphis' black community.
As a foot soldier in J. Edgar Hoover's domestic
intelligence program, Withers helped the FBI gain
a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war
movements in Memphis.
Much of his undercover work helped the FBI break
up the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled militant
group that became popular in disaffected black
Memphis in the late 1960s and was feared by city
Yet, Withers focused on mainstream Memphians as
Personal and professional details of Church of God
in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson (then a pastor
with a popular radio show), real estate agent O.W.
Pickett, politician O. Z. Evers and others plumped
FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on
When community leader Jerry Fanion took cigarettes
to jailed Invaders, agents took note. Agents wrote
reports when Catholic Father Charles Mahoney
befriended an Invader, when car dealer John T.
Fisher offered jobs to militants, when Rev. James
Lawson planned a trip to Czechoslovakia and when a
schoolteacher loaned his car to a suspected
Each report has a common thread -- Withers.
As a so-called racial informant -- one who
monitored race-related politics and "hate''
organizations -- Withers fed agents a steady flow
Records indicate he snapped and handed over photos
of St. Patrick Catholic Church priests who
supported the city's striking sanitation workers;
he monitored political candidates, jotted down
auto tag numbers for agents, and once turned over
a picture of an employee of the U.S. Civil Rights
Commission said to be "one who will give aid and
comfort to the black power groups." In an
interview this year, that worker said she came
within a hearing of losing her job.
"It's something you would expect in the most
ruthless, totalitarian regimes,'' said D'Army
Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former
activist who came under FBI scrutiny in the '60s.
The spying touched a nerve in black America and
created mistrust that many still struggle with 40
"Once that trust is shattered that doesn't go
away,'' Bailey said.
In addition to spying on citizens, Hoover's FBI
ran a covert operation, called COINTELPRO, a
counterintelligence or "dirty tricks'' program
that attempted to disrupt radical movements. It
did this with tactics such as leaking embarrassing
details to the news media, targeting individuals
with radical views for prosecution or trying to
get them fired from jobs. First launched in the
1950s to fight communism, by 1967 it was aimed at
a range of civil rights leaders and organizations
deemed to be threats to national security.
Congressional inquiries later exposed it for
widespread abuse of personal and political
freedoms, including a fierce campaign against
Yet much of the detail of the FBI's domestic
spying, including the inner workings of its
informant network in Memphis, remain untold.
Tracing Withers' steps through thousands of pages
of federal records reveals substantial new details
about the extent of the FBI's surveillance of
In Withers, who ran a popular Beale Street
photography studio frequented by the powerful and
ordinary alike, the FBI found a super-informant,
one who, according to an FBI report, proved "most
conversant with all key activities in the Negro
"He was the perfect source for them. He could go
everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional
purpose,'' said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
David Garrow, who, along with retired Marquette
University professor Athan Theoharis, reviewed the
Many political informants from the civil rights
era were unwitting, unpaid dupes. Yet Withers, who
was assigned a racial informant number and
produced a large volume of confidential reports,
fits the profile of a closely supervised, paid
informant, experts say.
"It would be shocking to me that he wasn't paid,''
said Theoharis, author of the books "Spying on
Americans" and "The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the
Great American Inquisition".
"Once you get to this level if you're a criminal
informant versus a source of information they're
at a higher level. They're controlled. They're
supervised,'' said Theoharis, who discerns a
valuable lesson in the revelation of Withers'
"It speaks to the problem of secrecy. The
government is able to do things in the shadows
that are really questionable. That goes to the
heart of our (democratic) society.''
It's uncertain what impact the revelation will
have on Withers' legacy. The photographer was
lionized in the final years of his life. Four
books of his photography were published, exhibits
of his work made international tours and a
building on Beale Street was named for him.
Congressman Steve Cohen proposed a yet-unfunded
$396,000 earmark for a museum, set to open next
month, to preserve Withers' archives.
Yet, even 40 years after the fact, the FBI still
aggressively guards the secret of Withers'
activities. The one record that would pinpoint the
breadth and detail of his undercover work -- his
informant file -- remains sealed. The Justice
Department has twice rejected the newspaper's
Freedom of Information requests to copy that file,
and won't even acknowledge the file exists.
Responding to the newspaper's requests, the
government instead released 369 pages related to a
1970s public corruption probe that targeted
Withers -- by then a state employee who was taking
payoffs -- carefully redacting references to
informants -- with one notable exception.
Censors overlooked a single reference to Withers'
informant number. That number, in turn, unlocked
the secret of the photographer's 1960s political
spying when the newspaper located repeated
references to the number in other FBI reports
released under FOIA 30 years ago. Those reports --
more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI's files
on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 probe
of the Invaders -- at times pinpoint specific
actions by Withers and in other instances show he
was one of several informants contributing
Witness accounts and Withers' own photos provided
further corroborating details.
"This is the first time I've heard of this in my
life,'' said daughter Rosalind Withers, trustee of
her father's photo collection, who said she wants
to see documentation before commenting at length.
"My father's not here to defend himself. That is a
very, very, strong, strong accusation. "
A son, Rome Withers, who runs his own Memphis
photography business, said he, too, was unaware of
his father's secret FBI work, but doesn't believe
it diminishes his courageous work documenting the
civil rights movement.
"He had been harassed, beaten, shot at. He was a
victim'' who often faced hostile mobs and violent
police forces. "At that time, when you are the
only black on the scene, you're in an intimidating
Andrew Young, now 78, said he isn't bothered that
Withers secretly worked as an informant while
snapping civil rights history.
"I always liked him because he was a good
photographer. And he was always (around)," he
said. Young viewed Withers as an important
publicity tool because his work often appeared in
Jet magazine and other high-profile publications.
The movement was transparent and didn't have
anything to hide anyway, he said.
"I don't think Dr. King would have minded him
making a little money on the side.''
* * *
There was a time in 1968 and 1969 when Lance
"Sweet Willie Wine'' Watson was considered the
most dangerous man in Memphis. As "prime
minister'' of the Invaders, a self-styled militant
organization whose rhetoric included overthrowing
the government, Watson frightened black and white
Memphians alike. The FBI assembled a huge file on
Today, Watson, who goes by the name Suhkara
Yahweh, is more conciliatory. He runs a community
development organization in his impoverished South
Memphis neighborhood and ministers to youths and
Still, he decorates his living room with mementos:
A bumper sticker reading "Damn the Army, Join the
Invaders''; a glass case containing a military-
styled jacket with "Invaders'' emblazoned on the
back; and a portrait of Ernest Withers displayed
prominently over his fireplace.
"That's my daddy,'' Yahweh, 71, said one afternoon
last winter, relating how Withers often gave him
money and advice.
"If he was (an informant) I don't know anything
about it ... He would call me his son. Right now,
I'm still part of the family. I talked to Rome
(son Andrew Jerome Withers) just the other day. I
talked to (Ernest) on his death bed.''
It's a testament to the FBI's effectiveness that
the dreaded "Willie Wine'' had no clue that
Withers was constantly informing on him.
Wine was in Atlanta possibly to "con'' money out
of the SCLC, reports indicate the informant told
agents. He reported Wine's girlfriend was
pregnant; that Wine was a thief. That Wine and his
cohorts had cat-called voting rights activist
Fannie Lou Hamer at a gathering at old Club
As informant ME 338-R, Withers had plenty to tell
the FBI in November 1968 when Willie Wine and
others seized the administration building at
LeMoyne-Owen College. What started as a dispute
over student grievances escalated into rebellion
when student leaders called in the Invaders and
the local chapter of the radical anti-war group,
Students for a Democratic Society.
Withers, who shot pictures of the crisis for Jet
and was seen by newsmen going into Brown Lee Hall
the night of the takeover, told FBI agents that
Wine planned and directed the operation.
ME 338-R said the building was held "in a state of
siege'' with school president Hollis Price inside,
according to a Nov. 27, 1968, FBI report. Although
local news accounts made no mention of weapons,
the informant said occupants "definitely had a
single-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, a rifle with a
telescopic sight, a bayonet, at least one
Derringer, and one pistol'' -- details confirmed
by another FBI source that night and Willie Wine
42 years later.
"I carried a .25-caliber pistol,'' the ex-militant
recalled. The only time he used his gun that night
was when another Invader rifled through an
administrator's cabinet. "I pulled out my pistol.
I said we're not here for that purpose,'' he said.
No charges were filed after officials at the
private school chose not to prosecute.
Over time, however, the FBI would break the
Invaders. Utilizing tips from Withers and other
informants plus three undercover Memphis police
officers who had infiltrated the group,
authorities prosecuted as many as 34 Invaders on
charges ranging from petty street crime to arson
and the sniper wounding of a police officer.
Although one undercover cop was famously exposed,
the Invaders seemed to have little clue about
Withers, who often visited the group's
headquarters on Vance and shot publicity photos
"Ernest, he was a dear friend," said Charles
Cabbage, who founded the Invaders in 1967. Like
Wine, Cabbage kept a memento on the wall, a
picture Withers took in 1968 of Cabbage as a
"Anytime he'd see us, he'd start snapping,"
Cabbage recalled. Cabbage, interviewed last
winter, four months before his death in June at
age 66, said he'd come to wonder what Withers was
"C'mon man. We weren't that interesting. Why would
he take our pictures constantly?"
As the FBI cast its net, it encountered a range of
people whose beliefs and personal details landed
in the bureau's spy files despite little more than
a tangential connection to the Invaders.
An Aug. 7, 1969, report shows the FBI collected 14
photographs of Father Charles Mahoney of St.
Patrick Catholic Church. Notations on the report,
along with other corroborating details, indicate
Withers shot the photos and handed them over to
agents. The report quotes the informant as saying
Mahoney "is a close friend'' of Invaders defense
minister Melvin Smith and notes that Mahoney and
two other priests allowed the Invaders to use
"The FBI was off base on the civil rights thing,''
one of those priests, Charles Martin, said in a
recent interview. An urban outreach ministry
brought St. Patrick in regular contact with the
Invaders. And when the priests there openly
supported the sanitation strike, there was a
backlash, Martin said.
"We were for the workers, the sanitation workers.
And a lot of people in the town didn't like us for
* * *
The Rev. James M. Lawson came into the FBI's focus
in early 1968 during the height of the sanitation
strike. It was Lawson, then pastor at Centenary
Methodist, who invited Dr. King to Memphis, where
he spoke in support of 1,100 sanitation workers
who had walked off the job to protest low pay and
horrid working conditions that led to the deaths
of two men.
"If one black person is down, we are all down!''
King told 15,000 cheering people at Mason Temple
the night of March 18, 1968.
Near the speaker's podium, the ubiquitous Withers
snapped photos. Images he shot that night would
stand as timeless icons of the strike alongside
those he took of marching sanitation workers
carrying "I Am A Man'' placards and National Guard
troops policing Downtown streets.
But the stout photographer with a chatty
personality and quick smile had another,
nonpublic, appointment that day, a secret meeting
in which the topic was his friend, Rev. Lawson.
Earlier that afternoon, Withers met with FBI
agents Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, who
ran the bureau's Memphis domestic surveillance
program. A report summarizing the meeting
indicates informant ME 338-R handed over a
newsletter listing names and photographs of
community leaders behind the strike -- a virtual
directory of strike-support organizers -- and told
agents who produced it.
"Informant pointed out that the paper is printed
or laid out by Rev. Malcolm D. Blackburn ...
pastor of Clayborn AME Temple ... The main
editorial work therein is done by Rev. James M.
Lawson Jr.,'' the report said.
Withers had a lot to say about Lawson, a veteran
civil rights leader and friend who marched during
the strike alongside Withers' wife, Dorothy, and
his daughter, Rosalind.
He portrayed Lawson as the type of left-leaning
radical the government had come to fear -- active
in the anti-war movement, involved with the feared
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and
someone who was planning a trip to the East Bloc
nation of Czechoslovakia.
"I'm not surprised,'' Lawson, now 81, said this
month when told of Withers' informant work. Lawson
said "the police and FBI were very clever about
entrapping'' blacks and making them informants.
"Any activity in the black community, Ernie was
going to be around,'' Lawson said. "It was
probably done innocently: 'You just tell us what's
going on and what you see and you get paid for
Lawson's was one of many biographies the informant
would flesh out for agents.
Reports linked to Withers show he was a font of
information for the FBI during the strike, handing
over documents, providing details from strategy
meetings, connecting dots between pastors and
The informant told agents on March 6 that young
militants -- Cabbage among them -- passed out
literature at a rally at Clayborn Temple with
instructions for making Molotov cocktail
firebombs. Mainstream leaders "did nothing'' to
stop them, the report said.
On April 3, the day before King's murder, the
informant passed on details about a high-level
strategy session at the Lorraine between Cabbage
and King, who begrudgingly decided to give the
young militants a role in the strike.
Well into the summer, after the strike was
settled, ME 338-R continued to report on its
impact. That July 26, the informant gave FBI
agents a financial report showing the strike-
leadership group, Community on the Move for
Equality, had spent $2,600 of $347,000 raised for
striking workers to pay attorney's fees and
expenses for members of the militant Black
Organizing Project, an umbrella group encompassing
As Hoover cranked up his campaign against "black
nationalist hate groups,'' anyone giving aid --
money, jobs, political support -- could fall into
the crosshairs of COINTELPRO, the FBI's dirty
The FBI had been spying on the civil rights
movement for years, but in an August 1967 memo,
backed by a more thorough order the following
March, the bureau directed Memphis and other field
offices to begin efforts to "to expose, disrupt,
misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize" a
range of civil rights leaders and organizations,
from the separatist Nation of Islam to King's
In May 1968 a similar initiative was launched
against the so-called "New Left,'' targeting
Vietnam War protesters and socialists, among
A U.S. Senate investigation in 1975 found
widespread abuse in the program, which lacked
statutory or executive approval. COINTELPRO
techniques ranged from contacting an employer to
get a target fired to mailing an anonymous letter
to a spouse alleging infidelity, leaking
humiliating information to the press, encouraging
street warfare between violent groups and alerting
state and local authorities to a target's criminal
Available records provide few details on specific
COINTELPRO actions taken in Memphis. Yet, records
indicate Withers fed agents plenty of raw
A schoolteacher loaned militant Cabbage his car,
the informant said. Mary L. Campbell, a supposed
black-power sympathizer, was running for the
county Democratic Party's executive committee.
Real estate agent O.W. Pickett, who'd brought food
to the Invaders during the LeMoyne takeover, was
thinking of running for Congress. Pastor Malcolm
Blackburn and activist Baxton Bryant were trying
to find jobs for the Invaders.
A May 13, 1968, report indicates Withers gave the
FBI two photos of Rosetta Miller, a field worker
for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, telling an
agent she is "one who will give aid and comfort to
the black power groups." Following up that fall,
an agent typed a two-sentence report memorializing
a rumor that Miller had recently married, noting
the marriage broke up after just a week. The
report was copied to Withers' informant file.
Interviewed this spring, Miller, who now lives in
Nashville, said her job with the commission came
into jeopardy in 1968 when supervisors questioned
her about ties to radicals.
"I was never part of that crap," she said.
Marquette's Theoharis, who worked with the Senate
committee that exposed many of the FBI's abuses,
said employment sabotage was a particularly
insidious COINTELPRO tactic.
"Once, (the FBI) got someone dismissed as a Girl
Scout leader. It was crazy," he said.
Records reviewed by the newspaper offered few
details of the secretive COINTELPRO initiative.
Yet, frustrated by continuing support for the
Invaders, the FBI clearly was considering such
actions in May 1969 against the African Methodist
"All sources have been alerted to attempt to
pinpoint any actual proof that employees of the
AME Church are giving financial support to the
Invaders," said a May 8, 1969, report to
headquarters in Washington.
"...If such proof is forthcoming separate
communication will be written to the Bureau
concerning any possible counterintelligence action
which might be instituted with certain AME high
church officials in this regard.''
* * *
Available files don't indicate how or when Withers
first teamed with the FBI.
But it would have been hard for the bureau to have
Withers served as a city police officer, hired in
1948 along with eight other African Americans who
composed MPD's first black recruit class. He
didn't last long. He was fired in 1951 for taking
kickbacks from a bootlegger.
By the early 1950s, Withers was making a name for
himself on Beale Street, where he had operated
since the mid-40s, chronicling the teeming night
life and the everyday life of black Memphis. By
night, he hung with bluesmen like B.B. King, Bobby
"Blue'' Bland, Junior Parker and Rufus Thomas and,
by day, he shot family portraits, weddings, church
socials, political gatherings and sporting events,
assembling one of the great Negro League baseball
"He knew everybody," recalled Coby Smith, a
political activist who founded the Invaders with
Cabbage and who would come to form his own
Across the street from Withers' studio, attorney
H.T. Lockard ran a law office. When Lockard became
president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP in
1955, a visitor started coming by -- Bill Lawrence
of the FBI.
In an interview for this story, Lockard, now a 90-
year-old retired judge, spoke for the first time
about his three-year association with Lawrence, a
bespectacled G-man who came to Memphis in 1945 and
ran the bureau's local domestic intelligence
operations in the 1950s and '60s. In the '50s, as
the Red scare was at its peak, the FBI kept close
watch on the NAACP and other civil rights
organizations believed susceptible to communist
"Because of the nature of the work I was doing,
there was a suspicious feeling that I was either a
communist or a communist sympathizer," Lockard
Like so many others recruited by the FBI, Lockard
said agent Lawrence showed up uninvited and made
regular unannounced visits to his law office with
no evident purpose. "One stock question was how
was I getting along,'' he said.
Over a period, the agent asked if a certain
suspected communist had joined the local NAACP.
Eventually, the man named by Lawrence applied for
membership. Lockard said he declined to enroll
It's unclear if the FBI considered Lockard an
informant. He said he was never paid. The FBI
visits stopped in 1957, when Lockard left the
NAACP helm, yet he said he developed "an amiable
camaraderie'' with Lawrence that included
exchanging Christmas cards for years after the
agent retired in 1970. Lawrence died in 1990.
Around the time Lawrence began calling on Lockard,
Withers began his long and remarkable career
chronicling the civil rights movement.
In 1955, Withers covered the murder of Emmett
Till, a 14-year-old African American who was
beaten, shot and tossed in a river in Money,
Miss., for whistling at a white woman.
The injustice of the crime -- the defendants, both
white, were acquitted by an all-white jury yet
later confessed in a paid magazine interview --
built the foundation of Withers' fame. Defying a
judge's order that banned picture-taking during
the trial, Withers captured the moment Till's
great-uncle Mose Wright stood up at the witness
stand and pointed an accusing finger at the
The Till case helped galvanize the movement, and
Withers soon had a wide array of assignments
covering civil rights.
As a freelancer for the Sengstacke family,
publishers of the Chicago Defender and the Tri-
State Defender in Memphis, Withers covered many of
the seminal events of the era. He was beaten by
police covering Medgar Evers' 1963 funeral and
harassed in small-town Mississippi following the
1964 murders of three Freedom Summer activists in
Neshoba County. He snapped pictures of King and
Abernathy riding the first integrated bus in
Montgomery in 1956 and photographed King in 1966
casually reclining in his room at the Lorraine
where he would die two years later.
Trained in photography in the Army during World
War II and equipped with a bulky twin reflex
camera, Withers lacked technical skill yet managed
to take profoundly powerful images, largely
through his resourcefulness and unusual access.
Locally, Withers chronicled all the significant
events, the Tent City voter registration drive in
Fayette County, the desegregation of Memphis City
Schools and the Downtown sit-ins of 1960.
It was around then that the FBI's Lawrence began
showing up at the NAACP offices, recalls Maxine
Smith, the organization's longtime executive
director in Memphis.
"We thought it was for our protection. We had
nothing to hide,'' Smith said. "Somewhere along
the line we began to suspect'' differently, she
What Smith and others didn't know was that by 1963
the FBI had begun wiretapping King, initially
because of the civil rights leader's ties to
adviser Stanley Levison, a suspected communist.
The FBI tapped King's phones, bugged his hotel
rooms and, in one infamous episode, mailed
surreptitious audio recordings including a taped
sexual liaison to his Atlanta home along with a
letter suggesting he commit suicide.
By 1967, as more-militant wings spun out of the
movement, the FBI launched a "ghetto informant
program'' recruiting "listening posts'' within the
black community, many of them white shopkeepers
and businessmen. Increasingly, headquarters pushed
agents like Lawrence to develop information from
"He used to come out here a whole lot, right
here,'' Smith said in the living room of her South
Parkway home. Smith told how Lawrence, a music
lover, fostered a relationship through her late
husband Vasco Smith's expansive jazz collection.
When a 1981 book revealed the couple's
relationship to the FBI, the Smiths sued -- and
lost. Still passionate about the issue, Smith
argues she and her husband were never paid.
"Nobody has ever offered Vasco or me one penny. No
one dare say that,'' she said.
Benjamin Hooks, the former national NAACP
director, agreed with her assessment.
"I don't know if anyone is trying to say they were
snitches. If that's what they're saying that is a
lie," Hooks said in January, 11 weeks before he
died. "You couldn't stop the FBI from coming and
talking to you. If you did, they'd make it up
anyway. They were talking to Maxine and Vasco and
Hooks all the time.''
When details of the FBI's domestic spy program
later leaked in congressional hearings, officials
said there were just five paid racial informants
working in Memphis in 1968. Officials have never
disclosed the identities of those informants; it's
unknown if Withers was included in that group.
"I'd like to know who those devils are," Smith
* * *
Perhaps the last man with firsthand knowledge of
Withers' covert life, retired FBI agent Howell
Lowe, opted to take his secrets to the grave.
"I won't have my name connected with this," Lowe
told a reporter last year, rejecting an interview
for this story. He died Jan. 1 at age 83. Although
Withers had died two years earlier, Lowe said he
feared that discussing the photographer's
informant work might harm his survivors.
"Some of the things we did were sleazy. We were
fighting what we thought was the possibility of
uprising in this country,'' Lowe said.
Lost, too, to history are Withers' motives. A
federal source who first told a reporter about the
photographer's secret life several years ago said
Withers, who raised eight children and struggled
financially, had a primary motive -- money.
That same source said Withers' secret informant
status came dangerously close to exposure in 1978
when Congress re-examined the FBI's investigation
of King's assassination. At the time, revelations
about COINTELPRO and the FBI's treatment of King
caused many Americans to wonder if Hoover's hatred
of the civil rights leader somehow morphed into an
assassination plot. The U.S. House Select
Committee on Assassinations eventually found the
FBI had nothing to do with the murder.
Yet, with the FBI's Memphis office on trial,
Lowe's partner, agent Lawrence, testified before
the committee on Nov. 21, 1978, speaking of a
valued informant who "provided information on
racial matters generally and the Invaders in
particular." The informant, paid up to $200 a
month, helped track King in the days before his
Lawrence said he frequently gave his informant
instructions ahead of time, giving him names and
topics to look out for and conferring almost daily
with him during the sanitation strike.
"I would call him if I had occasion to alert him
to something,'' Lawrence testified. "Otherwise, I
would hope that he would call me, which he
frequently did. Then periodically we would meet in
person under what we hoped were safe conditions to
personally exchange information, go over
descriptions, any photographs, things of that
Was Lawrence discussing Withers? The congressional
record is unclear. Nonetheless, as an FBI
informant with a symbol number and a large volume
of assignments, Withers would have been handled in
a similar fashion, experts said.
"These are individuals who are going to be
directed and paid... They saw you as a valuable
source and a continuing source,'' said Theoharis,
the retired Marquette professor.
Researchers who study the government informant
system say patriotism, desire to do police work,
thrill-seeking and money often are motivating
factors. Withers had served in the Army in World
War II. In addition to serving briefly as a police
officer, he ran successfully for Shelby County
constable in 1974 and later was appointed a gun-
carrying agent of the Tennessee Alcoholic
Withers' legal troubles also can't be discounted
as a possible motive. Withers would claim late in
life he was set up in the 1951 kickback incident
while working for MPD, yet his police personnel
file contains transcripts that reveal admissions
by Withers and detailed witness accounts
supporting the allegations. He was fired but never
Years later, in 1979, he faced similar charges,
this time in federal criminal court. Then-ABC
agent Withers pleaded guilty to extorting
kickbacks from a nightclub owner.
Regardless of his motives, the revelation of
Withers' FBI work doesn't harm his memory for some
who knew him.
"It does not alter who he was a person,'' said ex-
Invader Coby Smith. "He did so many more things.
That wasn't a fulltime thing to be an informant
Rev. Lawson agreed. "It won't tarnish his memory
for his family and friends.''
-- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545 Scripps Lighthouse
© 2010 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online
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