Bluff City, The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers, Preston Lauterbach

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by W. W. Norton & Co. (here). Hardcover, 6 ½ x 10 inches, 352 pages, with 14 black-and-white illustrations. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s an unfortunate fact that the FBI was notoriously hostile toward the aspirations of the civil rights movement. The obsession of its long-time director J. Edgar Hoover with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1950s and ‘60s bordered on the pathological, the G-man’s racism vying with his anti-Communism in fervency. Convinced that the non-violent movement led by King had hidden ties to Moscow, Hoover called for around-the-clock surveillance and wiretaps, initiated a salacious smear campaign, and even had an agent write a letter suggesting the pastor should commit suicide—or else the Bureau would publicize his extra-marital affairs. Hoover feared that African-Americans in the North and South were conspiring to unite and launch a revolution. To make sure that this unlikely fantasy never happened, he developed COINTELPRO (1956-1971), a plan to infiltrate every civil rights activist group—from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Nation of Islam to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panthers—and to sow rancorous division between them.

At the same time, though, when it came to protecting the rights of Southern Negroes during this period, any arm of the federal government was usually an upgrade over state and county law enforcement. Many local sheriffs were as corrupt as they were bigoted. Three presidents in succession—Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson—had to order national guard or U.S. Army troops to guard black students lawfully trying to attend school because police in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama did so little to prevent white mobs from attacking them.

It is against this background that the actions of Ernest Withers should be understood. The news in 2010 that the acclaimed African-American photographer (1922-2007) had informed for the FBI shocked his many friends and large family. He had been a welcome figure at events in and around Memphis during the ‘50s and ‘60s, where he photographed weddings, funerals, school events, and society lunches in the black community. He had portrayed the black baseball teams that passed through Memphis, including a young Willie Mays, and the musicians who performed in the city or recorded for Sun and Stax records. Elvis, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Carla Thomas were in his vast picture archive.

More importantly, he had documented the struggle for civil rights in the South since the 1950s. Publishing mainly in the black press, he had taken an iconic photograph at the Emmett Till trial in 1955, and another of King on one of the first desegregated bus rides in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. He was beaten and arrested in Jackson, MS, where he had gone to cover the funeral of Medgar Evers, murdered in 1963. He was on the streets at the beginning of the strike by the Memphis Sanitation workers in February 1968, taking a famous photograph of men carrying signs that read “I AM A MAN.” The event drew King to the city for what was to be the Poor People’s March. Withers was with him and other intimates in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel when King was assassinated.

Marc Perrusquia, an investigative reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, broke the story about Withers’ double life after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. His 2018 book, A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement, is a terrific first-person account by a newspaperman who doggedly gets to the bottom of a story that everyone would prefer to ignore or bury, primarily but not only the FBI.

Preston Lauterbach’s book owes a lot to Perrusquia’s leg work, and he rightly credits him. His priorities are different, however. As a writer whose previous research has revolved around the history of black popular music in Memphis, he isn’t as concerned with the specifics of Withers’ collaboration as with the cultural and personal background that led him into temptation.

The debauched politics of Memphis, where E.H. “Boss” Crump ran the city for the first half of the 20th century, was one factor. Like other Southern states, Tennessee was ruled by the Democratic party and governed by Jim Crow racial apartheid. Withers grew up in this oppressive world, in segregated North Memphis. His father, Arthur Withers, was a Republican who worked to register black voters, a reliable bloc for Crump, and he owed his job in the post office to the patronage of the Crump machine. “Arthur taught his son not to fuss about social change but to obey the law,” writes Lauterbach.

Ernest learned to respect authority while also scheming to bend the rules in his favor. A patriotic American, he enlisted in the U.S. Army soon after the beginning of World War II. He had his first formal training there in photography and darkroom techniques. (His sister had given him a brownie when he was a boy but he graduated to a 4×5 during the war years.) While island-hopping with his unit across the Pacific, he and a friend set up a clandestine portrait business on an African-American section of an air force base in the Marianas Islands. It was illegal but Withers estimates that he made $3000, much of which he sent home via the mail in cash (also illegal) to his pregnant wife.

When he returned, his father urged him to take the civil service exam and follow him into the post office. Ernest instead chose to scratch out a living as a freelance photographer until 1948, when he became among the first group of African-Americans hired by the Memphis Police Force. These officers were appointed by Crump largely to ease racial tensions after a white policeman had shot an unarmed African-American man. (Sound familiar?) But as was typical at the time in this part of the country, Withers and his fellow officers were not allowed to carry a gun or arrest white people.

When he was fired three years later for participating in a bootleg kickback scheme—a set up, he claimed, and Lauterbach cautiously agrees—Withers revved up his photographic career. His gregarious manner, knowledge of cameras and processing, and his entrepreneurial skills attracted plenty of business from the black community. His growing family—he and his wife would eventually have 9 children—also kept him on the lookout for anything that would bring extra income.

The FBI first considered him as an informant in 1958. Paranoia about Communist agents made both the FBI and the civil rights movement wary about contamination by the “Reds.” Asked to assess Withers’ character, his former boss on the police force said he was, according to Lauterbach, “intelligent but troublesome…. The chief didn’t trust Withers. He didn’t like him. But he didn’t question Withers loyalty to his country, and he thought Withers would cooperate with any government agency—as long as he could see the advantage.”

Withers’ chief liaison with the FBI, William Lawrence, is a singularly repulsive character in both Perrusquia’s and Lauterbach’s books. Like his boss Hoover, Lawrence interpreted any mildly liberal opinion as a sign of latent Communist sympathies.

Not all of Withers’ work was directed against the black community. In one of his first jobs for the FBI he supplied a photograph of an activist who was helping agents to expose a white conspiracy to deprive black citizens of their voting rights. But as the ‘60s wore on, erupting with urban riots, New Left bombings, student takeovers of Ivy League colleges, anti-Vietnam War protests, and as King was after 1965 marginalized by more militant groups, Withers seemed not to mind dropping a dime on members of the Nation of Islam or a Memphis black power group called The Invaders. He attended demonstrations and photographed (complete with annotations) potential troublemakers. His political instincts were conservative and, as an Army veteran who had grown up in the Cold War, he wasn’t fond of Communists himself. He was in favor of Johnson’s actions in Vietnam and disliked any black and white leaders who opposed it. Like his father, he favored the go-slow platform of the Republicans. It wouldn’t shock me if Ernest Withers had voted for Nixon in 1968.

Lauterbach isn’t as keen to expose his FBI skullduggery as Perruquia is. Withers disappears for whole chapters of the book. The Rev. James Lawson and the black power activist Charles Cabbage, both major figures in the Memphis civil rights movement, are often more prominent. Stokely Carmichael gives fiery speeches and then isn’t heard from again.

Nor does Lauterbach provide analysis of Withers photographs, his technique in the darkroom and journalistic tricks to gain access, why he chose one camera over another, or the financial nuts and bolts of his livelihood. How much was Withers paid by black newspapers and magazines? Did he try and fail to gain work from the white mainstream press? What did he charge at his portrait studio? What was the going rate from the FBI? (Perrusquia estimates the total amounted to about $20,000. But Lauterbach isn’t so forthcoming.) In one of the few mentions of specifics, we are told Withers earned $35 for a week’s work at the Emmett Till trial.

Some of the best parts of Bluff City deal with the tradecraft of the FBI. After a black power member asks Withers if the police have been nosing around and asking questions about his activities, Lawrence suggests conducting a fake “interview” with Withers and publicizing it to make it appear that his asset is under suspicion for being too friendly with radical causes. The last chapters build to a climax of cross purposes in Memphis, as King is desperately trying to restore his reputation as a viable leader with a black community that sees his non-violence as too passive, while Lawrence and the FBI continue to view him as a threat and are working to undermine his Poor People’s March.

Withers did not take the famous photograph on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel of those who surrounded King after he was shot and pointed toward where they thought it had originated—from the rifle of James Earl Ray, it turned out. But the photographer who got the picture, Joseph Louw, received essential help from Withers who made sure it was printed correctly and published promptly.

Late in life, Withers honed his reputation as a roguish character. He wore a kufi and drove around the city in a large sedan. He did well enough from his various enterprises to put eight children through college and he lived to see himself honored in touring exhibitions and four books. There is now an Ernest Withers Studio Museum on Beale Street and an Ernest Withers Trust. His archive of roughly 1 million prints comprises the largest chronicle of the civil rights movement by any one photographer.

Why did he do it? Lauterbach’s unsatisfactory answer is that we shouldn’t judge. “Is it our task now to decide how a black person should have navigated in a racist world? Without institutional American racism, Withers would never have become involved in racial espionage. But he still would have been a great photographer.” Neither of these statements is provably true.

It is surprising that neither Perrusquia nor Lauterbach mention the 1964 murders in rural Mississippi of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The case was the basis for the movie Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents who track down the local assassins as well as the police who protected them.

The fictitious portrayal of the two agents sparked huge controversy at the time. Many argued the story glorified the FBI and minimized Hoover’s reluctance to investigate. It’s true that, if not for pressure from President Johnson and the national press, the Bureau would likely not have aggressively pursued the murderers. Its agents nonetheless cracked the case and accused 21 Mississippi men of participating in a conspiracy to kill the three civil rights workers.

While Hoover was happy to create discord within the African-American movement for equal rights, the FBI should not always be seen as its sworn enemy. It had numerous informants within the KKK as well. Deputy Director James B. Adams told the Congress in 1975 that at one point as many of one-fifth of the Klan’s membership consisted of FBI informants. Gathering information, knowing the major and minor players, anticipating trouble—every law enforcement organization, from the NYPD to the CIA, is tasked by us with this job, even if we would rather not know when they have stretched or broken the law to do it. One can imagine that hundreds of Muslim men and women are currently employed as spies in mosques for governments around the world and will one day be named as snitches.

What has been painful for Withers’ friends is that his deception feels like a personal betrayal. As a photographer, he had been granted privileged access into quarters where the Civil Rights relaxed and strategized. In one of my favorite photographs of his, an exhausted King is lying on a bed in a Memphis motel; an open newspaper is on one side while his right hand rests on the receiver of a telephone. He has just finished talking to someone or is just about to place another call. Whatever the case, the photograph captures the relentless business of his mission in life.

Would King have forgiven the transgressions of his friend, as Andrew Young seems to have? “It’s not surprising,” he told the New York Times when asked to comment on Perrusquia’s story in 2010. “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.” The Rev. James Lawson, who campaigned with King on the streets on Memphis and has been a staunch believer in the principles of non-violence, had less reason to suspect he was being spied upon. As a long-time friend of the photographer, he is reported to have been particularly stung by the FOIA revelations.

Withers was not the first civil rights activist to be exposed as an FBI informant and he certainly won’t be the last. In 1981 the Washington Post reported that Julius Hobson, a self-described Marxist socialist who worked as a Social Security Administration economist and statistician, had led a similar secret life in Washington, D.C.

There weren’t many saints in the struggle for racial equality in ‘60s America, as Lauterbach’s book reminds us. After finishing it, I was more intrigued by Ernest Withers than when I began. I suspect this isn’t the last of the stories that will be told about his historic and problematic life.

Collector’s POV: The archive of Ernest Withers is housed at the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in Memphis (linked in the sidebar). Very few of Withers’ prints have found their way to the secondary markets in the past decade.

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