By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
APRIL 4 marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.
King was in Memphis supporting Black sanitation workers who were seeking better wages, working conditions, and respect from the city’s government.
A week before, King attempted to lead a march to bring the sanitation workers’ demands into focus, before the march turned violent, forcing the civil rights leader to flee the scene and leave the city.
During the march, Black sanitation workers and their supporters carried placards with the words “I am a man” embossed on them.
Nationally esteemed Photographer Ernest Withers captured the iconic image which became symbolic of the workers’ plight and cemented Withers’ legacy.
Withers, 12 years earlier, had photographed King riding in a desegregated street bus in Montgomery. For a year King was one of the leaders of a boycott of the bus system, seeking to force its owners to abandon the humiliating treatment of Black patrons.
The boycott shined a light on the life and work of seamstress Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat, spurring Black activism on the issue. It launched the career of Dr. King who pastored at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and fueled the genesis of the modern civil rights movement.
Withers was also in the courtroom where the men accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Emmitt Till were pointed out by the young man’s uncle. It was the only picture taken in the courtroom of that trial.
From that point, thousands of images of the Civil Rights Movement were captured by the lens of his cameras as he witnessed the marches and the sit-in and the men and women who organized them.
But history has shown that Withers was leading a double life during that time period.
Marc Perrusquia, a reporter from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, wrote about Withers and the revelation of his secret intelligence work for the FBI in his own book, “A Spy in Canaan,” which was published in 2007.
Other books have been written about Wither’s connection with the FBI. The most recent is “The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers” by Preston Lauterbach. (339 pp. W.W. Norton & Company.).
Lauterbach, during a recent interview with the GUIDE, said his book was inspired by the culture and personalities who haunted the entertainment world in Memphis.
This included Elvis and specifically, those on Beale Street, the heart of the city’s Black community.
This is when he encountered Withers, who was still working at the time at a storefront near the famous street. Lauterbach’s book focuses on Withers and the events leading up to and after King’s murder on April 4, 1968.
Lauterbach’s book highlights the dual legacy of Withers, specifically the March 28, 1968 march where Withers’ “I Am A Man” photo was taken.
Lauterbach said Withers often “staged” photo subjects to bolster the imagery and to assure he would be paid for his work by the various publications.
Withers helped organize that famous march because apart from being a photojournalist, he was an activist in the movement.
He helped register Black people to vote in Memphis and other parts of Tennessee.
The men are carrying the signs on sticks in the “I Am A Man” photo, Withers himself helped saw and attach them to the placards.
When the march turned violent, those pine two-by-twos became weapons.
Lauterbach expends some energy trying to figure out whether Withers had supplied them in hopes of creating a stir.
“He was proud of that photo,” said Lauterbach. “But he was concerned about the sticks being used as weapons. There was no evidence that he was involved with the people who actually started the violence.”
King fled the scene and the city after the riot. But to redeem himself and to prove he could succeed, Lauterbach said King returned to Memphis to continue his mission, several days before he was killed.
It is suggested if that March 28 march had not turned violent, King may not have returned to Memphis days later and would have avoided or delayed his demise.
He said the FBI’s and federal government’s interest in probing and disrupting the Civil Right Movement was long-standing policy, but gained speed after the Montgomery Bus Boycott March in 1960.
“The FBI had a Racial Division,” said Lauterbach. “At one point in the early 60s, an agent was briefing J. Edgar Hoover, on the Movement. And the agent said that they were not looking at King.
“Hoover pointedly asked him ‘why not?’ Hoover hated King and wanted to destroy and marginalize him.”
Withers turned over photos and information to the FBI not only on the rights movement but the anti-war efforts, as well. The bureau ordered him to take pictures of a particular anti-Vietnam war protest and he turned over 80 images.
“Withers was not the only African-American involved in the movement who gave and exchanged information with the FBI and local police,” said Lauterbach. “Roy Wilkins and other Black leaders talked to the FBI about colleagues and plans.”
Just how and why Withers became a snitch for the FBI can be traced to some underhanded dealings of his own.
He was a Memphis policeman before he was a photojournalist, Lauterbach’s book says, and a crooked one.
In the early 1950s, he left the Memphis Police Department involuntarily, after he’d been caught selling illegal liquor under the table. Twenty-four years later, he was appointed to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board – and then was stung again, this time by the F.B.I. itself, as he worked a scheme to get a prisoner out of jail in exchange for a cash payment to the governor.
It is suspected that the FBI used this transgression to exploit Withers and his connections and access to the inner workings and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Further, the author said, in the Jim Crow South, Withers like a lot of Black men with big families and talent, “hustled” to survive and was paid for his work.
At the moment when Dr. King was shot, Withers was not at the Lorraine Hotel as he was typically, engaging the civil rights leader and his entourage.
He did not take the famous picture of Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, standing over King’s body as he was bleeding to death, pointing toward the direction of the rifle shot.
A young South African photographer Joseph Louw did. He was too rattled to develop his pictures himself, and nearly botched the processing. Withers stepped into the darkroom alongside him and made sure it got done right. Those photos wound up in the FBI files.
The role of Withers and the other mysterious forces which led to the death of Dr. King 51 years ago are still being considered.
King’s every move was known by the FBI, including his travel schedule and where he stayed. His home and hotel rooms were bugged, and various moles, including perhaps Withers, were in his presence.
On the night of the murder, Lauterbach and other writers note how the FBI and local police botched the investigation at a very critical moment shortly after the murder.
“Surveillance of the Civil Rights Movement is nothing new, and did not start with Dr. King,” said Lauterbach. “They were infiltrating, spying and disrupting the Black Panthers and other groups. Even today with Black Lives Matters and newer organizations.”