Civil Rights Photographer Spied for FBI
Monday, September 13, 2010
Ernest Withers, widely honored in life as one of the foremost photographic chroniclers of the civil rights movement, has posthumously been given an additional title: informant for the FBI.
The source: "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," Marc Perrusquia reported Sunday in the Memphis newspaper.
"If these allegations are true, I am shocked and extremely disappointed," Dorothy Butler Gilliam, who first worked with Withers in the 1950s, told Journal-isms. "I never had any reason to suspect that he was doing this when we worked together in covering the integration of Central High in Little Rock in l957 or the integration of Ole Miss in l962.
"Nor did any suspicions arise when Syracuse University did a documentary that featured the two of us several years (ago)," said Gilliam, a board member of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. "This material is fresh in my mind and he's been on my mind because I've recently been researching this period and working on a book that would cover black journalists of that era."
Otis Sanford, Commercial Appeal editorial page editor, told Journal-isms Monday that "The reaction has been heavy." Most of it "can be described as shocked, some expressed disappointment that Withers had spied. A few refused to believe it."
Chris Peck, the paper's editor, called the news "astonishing" in his own column on Sunday. "It's a wrinkle in history that speaks for the importance of a free press and good reporting," Peck wrote.
"The family members who survive Ernest Withers never knew he was an informant.
"The people he photographed never knew.
"A man who was a trusted documentarian of the civil rights movement had a secret that may well have altered history and surely will modify his own legacy."
That legacy includes a lifetime achievement award in 2000 from the National Association of Black Journalists; a documentary by activist filmmakerSt. Clair Bourne, the "Freedom's Call" movie mentioned by Gilliam, which featured both of their recollections of covering the movement; books of Withers' photographs; and an exhibit of his civil rights images that toured the United States for at least 10 years.
In reporting the revelation, Perrusquia recalled the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and wrote:
"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 his death. . . .
"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 militants.
"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 saw it."
In his column, Peck wrote of Withers, "his role as an FBI informant raises two important questions that are relevant today.
"First, the Withers legacy asks us to think again about the wisdom of the U.S. government paying citizens to spy on the rest of us.
"In an age of terrorism, domestic spying seems to be accepted without much discussion.
"But where is the line? That the FBI thought the civil rights movement might be a massive conspiracy to undermine the government and civil order seems provincial and small-minded today.
"But what about spying on Muslims in America?
"How about spying on tea party activists? . . .
"A second question raised by the Withers revelations is a more personal one. Why do men decide to act in ways that may well be damaging to their own reputations, or to the causes in which they believe?
"The questions raised by his secret life as an informant seem as pertinent and nettlesome today as they were 40 years ago."
"I didn't know how revered my husband was," Pat Walters, wife of Ronald W. Walters, the "go-to" expert on black politics who died on Friday, told Journal-isms. "I am positively stunned. It's made me very happy to know my husband was revered and loved, especially by the African American community" for whom he worked so long.
"Just the sheer magnitude" of the outpouring was a surprise, she said. "I had to hire somebody to deal with the press. My voice won't hold up" after having to field so many phone calls, she said Monday evening.
Walters spoke as she returned from arranging services scheduled for Sunday and Monday in Washington, determined to hold them in places big enough so that no one would be turned away.
Chosen were Cramton Auditorium at Howard University for a "celebration of legacy," focusing on his accomplishments, on Sunday, with viewing at 3 p.m. and a program at 4 p.m., and Shiloh Baptist Church,1500 Ninth St. NW, for a "celebration of life," his funeral, on Monday, with viewing at 10 a.m. and a service at 11.
Washington will not be the only place honoring the political science professor, political adviser and black-press columnist.
"To Wichita, he will forever be the Wichita University freshman who in the summer of 1958 made history by leading the local NAACP youth chapter in a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at the Dockum Drugs store," Beccy Tanner reported Sunday in the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle.
"To the world, Ronald W. Walters was Jesse Jackson‚Äôs presidential campaign manager, a political scholar and strategist, news commentator, author and activist.
"Dr. Walters, a Wichita native, professor of government and political science at the University of Maryland, and director of the African American Leadership Institute at UCLA, died Friday in Bethesda, Md., from lung cancer. He was 72.
"A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Kansas African American Museum, 601 N. Water."
- Neal Conan, "Talk of the Nation," NPR: Remembering Renowned Race Scholar Ronald Walters
- Joel Dreyfuss, theRoot.com: Ronald Walters, Expert on Black Politics, Dead at 72
- Jackie Jones and Michael H. Cottman, BlackAmericaWeb.com: Political Scholar Ronald Walters Dies of Cancer
- Michel Martin, "Tell Me More," NPR: Professor Walters Taught Us All A Love For Country
- Reginald Stuart, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education: An Appreciation: Political Scientist Ronald Walters, 1938 ‚Äì 2010
"It is a perennial complaint about American television news: that the guests on the Sunday morning public affairs programs are not representative of the country‚Äôs diversity," Brian Stelter reported Monday for the New York Times.
" 'In 2009 the talk shows told us (by their selection of Congressional guests) that the people who matter are disproportionately white, male, senior and Republican ‚Äî disproportionate not just when compared to the American population overall, but also when compared to the population of Congress itself,' concluded a study published this month in The Green Bag, a quarterly journal supported by the George Mason University School of Law.
"The study, of the five network Sunday shows from February to December 2009, found that while 14.6 percent of members of Congress were minorities, just 2.5 percent of the Congressional TV guests were minorities; and that while 16.9 percent of members were female, 13.5 percent of the guests were female.
"A supplement to the study also singled out a group of '30 white, male U.S. senators in office six plus years' who represented 5.6 percent of the Congressional populace, but 61.4 percent of the TV guests."
Writing for the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Peter Hart told readers that "using the VoteView scores of lawmaker guests, FAIR found that the Republicans who most frequently appear on the networks tend to be from the conservative wing of their party; the Democrats invited on the same shows are closer the middle."
Hart also said, "At the risk of completely questioning the premise of the Sunday show format, maybe hosting weekly chats with prominent politicians is not a particularly great way of illuminating the vital issues of the day.
"It does give the major parties a platform from which to spout their talking points, which is really what . . . the producers are defending . . . as their way of doing journalism."
"To help ensure that communities are informed on key issues, 19 locally focused foundations will support local news and information projects with new funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation," the organization announced Monday.
"The community and place-based foundations will receive $3.14 million in matching grants as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge, which engages foundations in meeting local information needs. They join more than 75 of their peers now funding in this area, a Knight Foundation survey has found.
"The projects are from foundations large and small, in cities from Miami to Anchorage. Their ideas are as diverse as America‚Äôs information needs."
"The HBCU Network, a '24/7,' 365 days a year sports, 'edutainment' and lifestyle network dedicated to the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) across the United States, will launch in 2011, it was announced today by holding company C3 Media, LLC," the group said on Monday.
"Designed to fill a void in the cable industry, the channel will be the official destination of the four major HBCU Conferences (MEAC, SWAC, SIAC, CIAA) featuring Division I & Division II Black College Sporting events. Additionally, the network will offer a full complement of education & entertainment (edutainment) as well as lifestyle programming. Built on the solid foundation of the 143-year old HBCU brand, it will focus on a previously unexplored aspect of African American life of significant cultural importance to the global community."
The judge in the trial of the Buffalo-area television executive accused of beheading his wife has barred the executive "from giving on-camera interviews to any media outlets and issued a subpoena for the notes of the WGRZ-TV staffer who interviewed him off camera Wednesday morning," Matt Gryta reported Saturday for the Buffalo News.
The judge in Muzzammil A. 'Mo' Hassan's impending spousal-murder trial, Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk, warned Hassan, 45, "about the legal dangers of any effort on his part to try his case 'in the media.' He also severely limited the questions Hassan will be allowed to answer in any future pretrial media interviews to only the charges he faces and his defense plans."
"Motorcycle taxi drivers beat freelance journalist Paul Kiggundu to death Saturday evening, local journalists told CPJ. The drivers, commonly known as boda-boda, attacked Kiggundu while he was filming some of them demolishing a house in a town outside of Kalisizio, southwest Uganda," the Committee to Protect Journalists reported on Monday.
"Local journalists told CPJ that the drivers were destroying the house of another driver, Frank Kagayi, who they accused of committing murder and robbery. The drivers accused Kiggundu of working for the police, even though he had identified himself as a journalist, a bystander told the Ugandan Human Rights Journalist Network. Kiggundu died of internal bleeding before he could receive treatment at Kalisizo Government Hospital. Police are investigating the murder, although no arrests have been made, local journalists told CPJ."
Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
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