After he died in 2007, documents secured through a Freedom of Information Act request, submitted by journalists, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, revealed that in addition to taking photographs, Withers was also a paid informant for the FBI.
Withers even had a code name, “ME 338-R,” a designation for “Memphis Racial Informant.”
A paper trail has emerged that suggests, Withers provided the FBI with sensitive information on leaders of the movement, their meetings, and their activities – part of the FBI’s official, “Ghetto Informant Program.”
Not everyone is convinced.
“I don’t trust the CIA or FBI to release information about Blacks who they claim were informants, but I am curious to watch the programming to see what Soledad found,” said Brink Dabydeen, a photographer who lives in New Jersey.
Dabydeen, 71, said that there were numerous attempts by the government to infiltrate the inner circles of the Civil Rights movement’s most vocal leaders and their strategies.
“Black activism was considered a threat to the nation and national security. There were whisperings of Communist agendas and ties to illegal activity, but these were conflated rumors, and little else,” Dabydeen said.
CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien tells the story of the secret life of Ernest Withers in Pictures Don’t Lie, debuting on CNN on Sun., Feb. 20 at 8:00 p.m., EST and PST.
Martin Luther King Jr. biographer, David Garrow, tells O’Brien that the information implicates Withers beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“There is no doubt whatsoever, the available documentary evidence, which includes both Mr. Withers’ name and his informant coding number – matches up with dozens of FBI documents – nails it, 100 percent – case closed.”
Withers’ family members describe feeling of “devastation” and considered canceling plans to turn his former Memphis photography studio into a museum.
Social activist Dick Gregory also tells O’Brien that Wither’s placed Dr. King’s life in jeopardy since Withers was informing on Dr. King’s locations, meetings, etc.
“This man ... his danger was – he was -- all over the place,” Gregory said in reference to Dr. King.
However, former U.N. Ambassador and former Mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, has a totally different perspective.
Young suggests that even if Withers had been an informant, his photographs proved to be crucial to the Movement’s success.
“[It] would not have been the Movement without the pictures ... basically, he was the guy,” he said.
O’Brien dissects never-seen-before documents from the FBI along with a digital feature that describes the story of how the documents came to light. It will be reported on www.cnn.com/inamerica, along with a photo gallery of Withers’ iconic images and video excerpts of the documentary.
An audio podcast of the documentary will be posted following the premiere. CNN Student News is producing an Educator and Parent Guide for, Picture Don’t Lie, which will include a question and a discussion period.
The program replays on Sat., Feb. 26 at 8:00 p.m., EST and PST.