- - Monday, March 11, 2019


By Preston Lauterbach

W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, 352 pages

Ernest Withers was one of America’s first successful black photographers. He captured stunning images of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., blues musicians like B.B. King, and Negro League stars like Satchel Paige. His coverage of the Emmett Till murder trial, one of the most notorious lynchings in Mississippi’s history, brought this horrible episode into the national spotlight.

But there was another side to Withers, who died in 2007 after nearly six decades as a prolific shutterbug. A 2013 Freedom of Information Act request revealed he was an FBI informant during the time he captured the civil rights movement on film.

Preston Lauterbach’s “Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers” is an in-depth examination of a secret double life that no one knew about, and few would have ever suspected. It’s impossible to know what Withers’ exact intentions and motives were during his undercover days (and nights). But the author has put together an intriguing volume that attempts to connect some of the dots that a roll of Kodak film couldn’t be expected to do.

The African-American press at that time “functioned in a highly pressurized atmosphere.” This was largely due to racism, segregation and the false narrative of black inferiority. Hence, black reporters “felt a duty to challenge such biased coverage, to go beyond the white version of events.”

Withers was one of Memphis’ first black police officers, but his real passion was photography. He took his GI bill funding and opened a small studio. He was both a trailblazer and visionary, with a real eye for detail and instinctively knowing which moments the general public had a hunger for.

Moreover, he had “a gift for gaining intimate access to power.” This included images of Elvis Presley with black musicians, to Martin Luther King lying on a bed with a newspaper. “In this age of revolution,” writes Mr. Lauterbach, “the world slowed in Withers’s lens. He covered the 1960s as Matthew Brady covered the 1860s.”

He took sensational shots of the Till trial, Montgomery bus boycott and John F. Kennedy. “I had fear,” he said in an interview with Marshand Boone at Syracuse Univesity, “but I had a sense of self-confidence and a tactic that you would always have in life, that you know how to act anywhere you go, to keep yourself, if you can keep your head on all about you.”

This profound quote may help explain how Withers served as an FBI informant unbeknownst to friends and foes alike.

His secret life as an intelligence agent was long shrouded in mystery. This revelation only occurred because a 1970s FBI file related to questionable prisoner pardons in Tennessee forgot to redact his code name. Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia requested access to his FBI files and, after a protracted legal battle, they were released in 2017.

Withers had previously been investigated for possible Communist sympathies, but had been cleared of any suspicion. FBI Special Agent William Lawrence wanted to use his services as a “confidential informant” in 1961, and contacted Memphis Police Chief J.C. Macdonald. He remembered the photographer, who had been “dismissed from the force” due to selling bootleg whiskey, and found him to be “opportunistic [i]ntelligent but troublesome.” MacDonald may not have particularly liked Withers, but didn’t question his “loyalty to the country” and thought he would “cooperate with any government agency — as long as he could see the advantage.”

“Bluff City” delves into Withers’ meetings, discussions and fascinating photos during his time as an FBI informant, including the Nation of Islam, black power movement and Martin Luther King’s assassination. There’s also an intriguing discussion on the possible hidden meaning behind his “I AM A MAN” photo from the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis.

While this has always been viewed as an important symbol for the civil rights movement, Mr. Lauterbach wonders if it could have been a “photographic prop” or something with “a more mischievous intent.” Then again, the photographer could have “seen the I AM A MAN signs as good for both causes, helping the strike and the FBI.”

It’s hard to say with certainty whether Withers worked to promote civil rights, or undermine them. Mr. Lauterbach notes his conduct “never changed during the years of his informant work, and his courage and commitment through the most physically threatening and emotionally trying times of his life are beyond approach.” Maybe this is one of those rare spy stories we were never meant to truly understand.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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