Saturday, February 4, 2012
The hunt for Ernest Withers’ informant files
The body of work that the late Ernest C. Withers had amassed during his ennobled career as a civil rights photographer brought him a measure of fame, and suspicion, too, after the news broke in 2010 that he secretly supplied the FBI with information and photographs of stakeholders in the movement.
On Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, in a response to a lawsuit filed by The Commercial Appeal, which broke the story, “officially confirmed” that Withers had been informant ME 338-R.
The judge’s ruling came 14 months after the newspaper filed a suit against the FBI in November 2010 in hopes of forcing the FBI to release Withers’ informant files. The government still hasn’t confirmed whether Withers was a paid informant or not.
The initial report and repeated coverage of Withers’ suspected clandestine involvement with the FBI, from at least 1968 to 1970, produced a shockwave that reverberated around the world. In this latest episode of the newspaper’s hunt for Withers’ FBI files, the judge’s ruling barely registers on the Richter scale. Does anybody care?
Withers is still viewed by many as the kingpin of civil rights photography. The recent revelation, however, has done little to diminish his legacy. The overwhelming consensus is that the tens of thousands of powerful images that he snapped with his film camera did more to shed light on the tumultuous era rather than the information he is suspected of supplying the FBI.
Did Withers rendezvous with the FBI or not? Jackson’s ruling did not convince Rosalind Withers-Guzman one iota that her father supplied information to the FBI. In fact, she’s resolved to build upon the legacy that he’d bequeathed his family and over one million of enduring images that he left to posterity.
“The allegations have been around for a long time. That’s no different than what was stated before,” Withers-Guzman, president and board chairman of the museum and trustee of the Ernest C. Withers Trust, said about Jackson’s ruling. Last year in February, months after the news broke, the Withers family opened the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, 333 Beale St., to preserve the history of their father’s work.
“Whether my father was an FBI informant or not, I really don’t know,” said Withers-Guzman. “I can only look at what they investigate. The thing that is not properly represented is a major concern for me: Communicating with the FBI was a standard back then, a protocol. He was following the leadership at that time. He wasn’t trying to do something to harm the movement, which they’re alluding to.”
Withers-Guzman said she has a problem with the whole shebang. “I personally think they really want to cause disdain so that the record of work my father left behind will be tarnished,” she said. “No one has the evidence of our past more than Ernest Withers. He has 60 years of history covering five categories in an indebt way.”
Withers died in 2007 at age 85.
Withers-Guzman said she wouldn’t have known what to do “if I didn’t have the quarterback,” a reference to a Jan. 26, 2012, premiere showing of “Quarterback: A Documentary on Dr. Ernest Withers” at the museum and gallery. The short film depicts Withers’ life of work through the eye of his camera.
Whatever is gleaned from the judge’s ruling and the newspaper’s insistence on tracking Withers’ files doesn’t negate the fact that Withers was the quintessential civil rights photographer, Withers-Guzman said, whose photos remain an integral part of history.
“They use my father’s work as a benchmark,” she said. “Our history is in black and white. And no one else has that.”