Do a Civil Rights Photographer's FBI Ties Complicate His Legacy?

Ernest Withers took many iconic images during the Civil Rights struggle

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ernest Withers was a civil rights-era photojournalist who had access to some of the highest levels of the movement; over the weekend, we learned that Withers may have used his extraordinary access to sell information to the FBI, perceived enemies of the movement’s leaders.  

Withers’ images are famous for the level of intimacy and access he could achieve with such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the death and trial of 14-year-old Emmett Till.  Although Withers died in 2007 at the age of 85, last weekend’s revelations open a new chapter in his story and we want to know: how does this new information change our perception of his impressive body of work? 

For that we speak with Earl Caldwell, a former national correspondent for The New York Times who worked alongside Withers, and Deborah Willis, artist, photo historian and professor of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School for the Arts at New York University.

Ernest Withers' iconic photo "I Am A Man," depicting a garbage collectors' strike in Memphis in 1968.

Comments [2]

James Harmon from Tampa, Florida

Keep Your Government Hands Off of My Pictures:

Today we see an ever growing call for less government instrusion into our lives so it should not be hard to understand how I could be very disappointed that Mr. Whithers would betray his privilege in this way. Dr. King was all about truth and being who you say you are. He boldly told a nation that. Whithers was not a man; he was the "Man". Anyone could have taken those pictures. But a true artist is someone whose work we can trust as being honest. This is not to say, however, that his pictures did not have value. It's jsut that his camera seemed to be just a prop to hide who he really was. The pictues are now timeless history and so is the song "Blame It On The Rain". But do we still respect the artists?

Sep. 16 2010 05:34 PM
E Strother from Boston

Dear Jim, I wish you would NOT be so sensationalist. Consider that Mr. Withers sharing the story of the movement with a governmental agency was actually helpful to the movement. If anyone was going to tell the true story of what was happening it was not going to be local reporters, or local government agencies. Your choice of the word "informant" is inflammatory.

Sep. 16 2010 06:48 AM

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