Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Like him or not, Ernest Withers' legacy still intact

   There is a consensus among historians that Ernest C. Withers is no doubt the most important civil rights photographer of the 21st century. Not many people would dispute that fact. But after reporter Marc Perrusquia broke the news last year that Withers had been an FBI informant in the 1950s and '60s, the legacy that he'd struggled to build suddenly became tarnished and his reputation sullied.
   The startling news had spread like a brush fire across the country and prompted CNN's Soledad O'brien to produce a one-hour documentary on Withers' legacy and his alleged ties to the FBI titled "Pictures Don't Lie," which aired Feb. 20. What Perrusquia had done in news print to bring to light Withers' clandestine work on the periphery, O'brien took it a step further by allowing us to see and hear through the camera's eye what people had to say about Withers -- good, bad or indifferent.
    Comedian Dick Gregory, an activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called Withers a "black Judas." Others weren't as critical or as angry as Gregory, but nevertheless were surprised or unwilling to accept the news that Withers had been confidential informant ME 338-R.
   It didn't seem to matter to former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, one of Dr. King's lieutenants, who said it would not have been a "movement" without Withers' pictures. Maxine Smith, former executive secretary of the local NAACP, backed up Young, saying, "Ernest was always there and a vital part of the movement."
   Withers died in October 2007 after finally peaking as a great American photographer whose name had become synonymous to civil rights. His legacy was assured and his place in history secured until an aggressive reporter acted on a tip that he'd received years ago before breaking the story.
   Andrew "Rome" Withers, one of the photographer's eight children, said, "My father is not here to defend himself." Two other family members, Joshua "Billy" Withers and Rosalind Withers-Guzman, described their father as the quintessential photographer who worked hard to shed light on the plight of African Americans during the turbulent civil rights movement.
   Was money an issue in Withers' decision to work for the FBI, as Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, a King associate who was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when an assassin's bullet rang out, asserted? "He never made an issue of money," said Kyles. "He didn't get paid that much for his services."
   Withers did complain, however, to some people about receiving inadequate compensation for the photographs that he'd taken for a number of individuals and the black press, through which his photographs were first published and his access to noted people, strategy meetings, and events was granted more than most.
   Was Withers the Judas as Gregory angrily contends? Was he a snitch that some people now believe is true? The press, through which Withers rose to fame, has become his prosecutor. Whether there is a preponderance of evidence or not, the jury is still out and the final verdict is still being considered in the court of public opinion.

My take on Withers...

   It is a foregone conclusion that Withers was indeed "the ultimate insider" who was there at just about every important event with his camera focused on the struggle and plight of African Americans during that dark era of wanton injustices.
   Withers was a friend to many on just about every socioeconomic front. Over a million negatives in his archives proved he was quite mobile and had a keen sense of recognizing what would become historical. "We were quite comfortable with his presence," said Smith. "He was one of us."
   Indeed he was. But how would one separate Withers the iconic photographer from Withers the alleged FBI informant, as he's now being portrayed? Certainly the news flash was a shock to many of Withers' friends and close associates. But those who only knew of him by reputation and never were a part of his inner circle might be quick to rush to judgement.
   I'd known Withers the iconic photographer for nearly three decades before Withers the alleged FBI informant was reported by Perrusquia. Do I believe that Withers played a dual role during the civil rights movement and tried to undermine those who sacrificed life and limb for justice and equality on the perilous streets of America?
   If Withers was indeed an informant, I doubt seriously that he did it to cause detriment to the movement. He was too engaged in documenting what was unfolding through his camera's lens for the sake of history and selling those images for what they were worth to the black press and other publications. For it was Withers' photographs that brought to light the atrocities that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and stored somewhere under the cloak of darkness.
    I'm inclined to believe that Withers was a victim of circumstances during the era in question. Was he one of 7,000 who was corralled by the FBI to participate in its ghetto informant program from 1967-1973? Perhaps. But who knows what compelled Withers or what his motives were during that volatile period in history.
   For the sake of argument, if Withers was indeed a snitch, did he intend to throw the FBI off course by tossing them a few nuggets that were devoid of meaty information? Was he a reluctant participant? Did he try to outsmart the FBI by playing along to get along? Rome may have a point when he told Soledad O'brien that his father is not around to defend himself. And if he were, what would he say in his own defense?
    Young was clear in his judgement of Withers: "There is no forgiveness necessary for Ernest Withers." What he merely was saying is that Withers was more of a help to the movement than a hindrance. If it had not been for those explicit photographs in black and white, would the world be privy to the racial unrest that had exploded all across the South? Who knows?
   Sure, I may be somewhat disappointed in Withers' alleged rendezvous with the FBI. But the friendship that we'd shared all those years supersedes anything that Perrusquia can did up. A couple of my family members once committed awful crimes and served time in jail. I was disappointed in them for making foolish mistakes, but my love for them never wavered.
   A friend of mine said the other day that if his past was made into a motion picture and flashed across the sky for the world to see, he wouldn't be able to watch it without cringing. He said he'd be too ashamed to watch his earlier years unfold before his eyes.

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