What photojournalist became well-known for his civil rights images, but monitored activities of activists?
Trained as a photographer in World War II, Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007) documented over sixty years of African-American history. His visual images were devoted to the Civil Rights Movement, Negro Leagues Baseball, and the blues and R&B performances that he witnessed on Beale Street in his Memphis hometown. While serving in the war, the Army Corps of Engineers trained him as a photographer. When the war ended he returned to Memphis and established a commercial studio. Withers served the black newspaper industry, working as a freelance journalist for such newspapers as the Tri-State Defender and the old Memphis World.
In 1955 two white men had been accused of killing a black teenager from Chicago, Emmett Till, for supposedly whistling at the wife of one of the defendants. The men were acquitted but much later admitted that they committed the crime. Withers covered the trial in Sumner, Mississippi, and published the photographs that he took in booklet form. The booklet led to other assignments for Withers. The black press, including the Chicago Defender, Jet, and the Baltimore African American, gave him assignments, as did mainstream outlets including the New York Times, Life, Time, and the Washington Post.
As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, Withers captured key moments and events in the South. Among his subjects were Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama; the photograph was taken on December 1956, the first day that desegregation of the buses occurred. In 1957 Withers chronicled the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas and James Meredith’s entrance into the University of Mississippi in 1962. He documented the funerals of Medgar Evers in 1963 and King in 1968. After his death, the real purpose of Withers’s work became known. Recruited in 1958, he was a “racial” informant for the FBI. He helped the FBI infiltrate black power groups and monitored the work of activists during the Civil Rights Movement. He especially followed celebrities who visited his hometown of Memphis.