Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers

Image of Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers
Release Date: 
January 15, 2019
W. W. Norton & Company
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“Without institutionalized American racism, Withers would never have become involved with racial espionage. But he still would have been a great photographer.”

One thing we tend to take for granted about the relatively small number of African American journalists closely identified with their coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s is a commitment to the cause as unwavering and emphatic as their parallel pledge to report objectively would allow.

Dating back as far as the 1955 trial of Emmett Till’s killers, in which a contingent of black journalists risked life and limb driving into the Mississippi night in search of a suppressed witness, these reporters made their allegiances clear in their actions if not their tempered reportage.

At the Till trial in particular, black journalists couldn’t help but choose a side, given the savagery of the crime. Moreover, each morning at the courthouse began with the reporters huddled around their cramped Jim Crow press table, and Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider strolling in, blackjack visible, to greet them with a cheerful, casual, “Good morning, niggers.”

The defining image of that trial depicted Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, defying centuries of white supremacy to rise from the witness stand and point out one of the men who had brutally murdered his nephew. The photographer who took that picture, Ernest Withers, on assignment from Memphis’ Tri-State Defender, had surreptitiously snapped the photo despite the judge’s strict ban on courtroom photography during the trial. Before a bailiff could seize the camera, Withers sold the roll of film for $35 to a sharp wire service reporter and soon found his brave and lucky (and unattributed) photo in national circulation.

With skills developed as an army photographer during World War II, an uncanny eye for evocative images, and the charm and chutzpah to position himself to get such remarkable shots, Withers went on to capture many of the most celebrated and catalytic photos of the civil rights era. More than any ordinary bearer of a Tri-State Defender or Jet press pass, Withers found himself on intimate terms with key figures in the movement from Medgar Evers to James Lawson to Martin Luther King, Jr., and enjoyed access to the movement’s inner workings like few other journalists and/or photographers.

When the Memphis Commercial Appeal revealed in 2010 that the recently deceased Withers had served the FBI as a paid informant throughout the 1960s, reactions among journalists, activists, and movement leaders who had worked alongside Withers and appeared in his photographs ranged from shock and disbelief to confusion and sorrow and anger.

King lieutenant Andrew Young declared publicly that an organization as transparent as King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had no secrets from the FBI, whatever the bureau’s motives in planting informants in their ranks. (Young’s above-the-fray response ignores how aggressively and viciously J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI worked to sabotage King, at one time attempting to convince the civil rights leader to kill himself.)

Others responded more critically. Ernest Caldwell, who famously covered the Black Panthers for The New York Times, claimed that the FBI pressured most first-rank black journalists of the era (himself included) to spy on the movement but they had the integrity to refuse. Caldwell dismissed Withers as a traitor to the movement, his race, and his profession.

Legendary Jet and Ebony reporter Simeon Booker, a longtime Withers colleague who made no secret of his own mutually beneficial (but non-paid) relationship with FBI deputy director Deke DeLoach, disputes the “Black Judas” label hung on Withers in his 2013 memoir, Shocking the Conscience. “Ernest Withers’ photographs probably did more to advance the cause of civil rights than anything else that’s in print, and that is his lasting legacy,” Booker writes. “As for anything else that’s said about him, a dead man can’t defend himself. Let him rest in peace.”

Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first black woman reporter at the Washington Post, also wrestles with Withers’ legacy in her just-published memoir Trailblazer. Upon reading the revelations about her late friend and colleague Withers in the Commercial Appeal, she writes, “I was devastated, deeply disappointed, furious even. How could he have revealed information to the hideous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that further jeopardized Dr. King and the other freedom fighters who faced dangers daily while helping Blacks obtain their rights as American citizens?”

While taking comfort in Young’s contention that Withers’ damage to SCLC was limited by the organization’s having nothing to hide, she concludes, “With time, I came to accept that Withers was a deeply flawed man. Nevertheless, he did create a legacy of iconic photographs that will forever bear witness to the black struggle for freedom.”

So who was this “deeply flawed man” who earned the trust and confidence of King and others, captured their struggles and humanity so compellingly, and supplied photos and detailed reports on their activities and plans to investigators determined to contain and even subvert those efforts?

Memphis writer Preston Lauterbach explores that fascinating question in his new book Bluff City: The Secret Life of Ernest Withers. Lauterbach’s earlier work, Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, tells the eye-popping tale of the rise, fall, and sanitized resurrection of the former epicenter of black life in Memphis.

Beale Street talks in Bluff City too, as Lauterbach casts Withers’ life as very much a Memphis story, establishing from the outset the canny hustler Withers learned to be to survive as failed cop-turned-freelance photographer with a family of ten to support.

Lauterbach takes readers inside the Beale Street night clubs where the young Withers cut his teeth, mingling with and shooting arresting photos of B.B. King, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and a pre-RCA Elvis Presley. Notably, Lauterbach writes, Withers’ Presley photos (one of which appears in the book) of Elvis in black clubs “help us see something we still wonder about and discuss today—the importance of black artists to Presley.”

Other nights, camera around his neck, Withers would move from club to club, snapping impromptu portraits of club patrons. “He shot people sober and sold them drunk,” Lauterbach writes, “running from the club to his Beale Street office to hurriedly develop film, make prints, and return to close sales before the night’s end.”

Nearly a decade into his photography career in 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered, Withers had “developed a style, a work ethic, and many of the intangibles needed to make him more than a picture taker: he had the courage to move in on his subject, the mental focus to block out interruption, and the ability to capture a story in an image.” All he was missing was a platform and a purpose.

Withers found that purpose in the outrage over horrific photos of Emmett Till’s mangled corpse published in Jet in the summer of 1955, when photography emerged as a powerful instrument in the civil rights struggle. Withers’ journalistic mentor, L. Alex Wilson, editor of the African American daily Tri-State Defender, tapped Withers to cover the trial of Till’s killers, and shortly thereafter to photograph the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Wilson, whose paper’s unflinching coverage of lynchings and segregation demonstrated his commitment, served as a mentor to Withers as the photographer worked to adapt his craft to serve the movement and expose truths that white photographers had traditionally obscured. Withers asked, “How do I know what picture to take? How do editors know what picture to run?” Wilson replied by suggesting that Withers ask himself, as his took his photos, “Is it true? Does it hurt? What good does it do?”

There’s little question that the best of Withers’ subsequent work fulfilled Wilson’s stated mission and then some, up to and beyond Wilson’s death in 1960. So why, in that year, did Withers begin responding favorably to the entreaties of local FBI agent William Lawrence to trade black secrets for money, and from then on “cover the important race news—the Freedom Rides, Black Power, riots, and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.—as both a photographer and a spy[?]”

Lauterbach offers a number of plausible explanations, including a deep-seated conservatism and practical gradualism on Withers’ part that aligned with the FBI’s disapproval of some aspects of the freedom struggle while passionately supporting others. Lauterbach digs deep into the parallel history of Communist influence and attempted influence in the civil rights movement, and the FBI’s efforts to target (not to mention exploit, amplify, and exaggerate) that influence since J. Edgar Hoover’s arrival at the bureau in 1924.

Suspicion of Communist infiltration of the movement only grew in the ’50s and ’60s at the height of the Cold War, when the fortunes of the movement always played out in the larger context of the ongoing U.S.-Soviet ideological conflict over which country and political belief system more effectively modeled freedom and equality to the world at large. If Withers was motivated to help the FBI by a desire to root out Communist associations in civil rights organizations, he would have been far from the only activist or sympathizer who thought the movement’s interests were better served by remaining Communist-free.

Withers’ interactions with the FBI in Bluff City are a fascinating study in contrasts that lend credence to the notion that he was motivated by more than money. On the one hand, Lauterbach describes Winters’s aggressive and deceptive efforts to expose and undermine young Black Power supporters. On the other, we see his insistence that the Nation of Islam (whose Beale Street advocates he was specifically instructed to befriend and spy on) were lawful, respectful, peaceful people with no Communist ties.

Bluff City arrives relatively hot on the heels of another book on Withers’ career as civil rights photographer and FBI informant, the formidable A Spy in Canaan (2017). Written by Marc Perrusquia, the Commercial Appeal reporter who broke the Withers story after a prolonged and expensive Freedom of Information Act suit to declassify the bureau’s file on Withers, A Spy in Canaan naturally focuses much more than Bluff City on Perrusquia’s initial tip and his battle to bring the story to light, which is a pretty intriguing tale in its own right.

Still, as one might expect, there’s much overlap between the two books. Perrusquia focuses less on Withers’ adventures in the Beale Street music scene and more on his other concurrent career as a local family photographer, a fixture in the community whose subsequent exposure as a spy naturally hurt a lot of people who considered him a trusted neighbor and friend.

What sets apart Bluff City is Lauterbach’s police and feds’-eye view of the civil rights movement in Memphis, up to and including the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 that led up to the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. Withers wasn’t at the Lorraine at the time of King’s assassination (although he did arrive shortly thereafter and develop the famous photos taken of the Lorraine balcony with King aides pointing at the shooter). But Withers was a constant presence in the sanitation workers’ struggle, with much of his time spent in motel rooms with King and other SCLC leaders.

Lauterbach devotes the last fifth of Bluff City to a blow by blow account of the sanitation strike, up to and including the tragic events of April 4 and the fateful march that erupted in violence a week earlier, when Withers took his indelible photograph of the assembled strikers holding signs that declared “I AM A MAN.”

Lauterbach’s riveting recounting of the sanitation strike, and the stranger-than-fiction role Withers may have played in the riot that threw it into chaos, would be enough to make Bluff City an indispensable work.

The fact that Lauterbach ultimately reserves judgment on Withers just makes good sense. “Is it our task now to decide how a black person should have navigated a racist world?” Lauterbach asks. “Without institutionalized American racism, Withers would never have become involved with racial espionage. But he still would have been a great photographer.”