Thursday, September 16, 2010

Noted Civil Rights Photographer Was FBI Informant

After a two-year investigation, the Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in Memphis, reveals that photographer Ernest Withers spied on the civil rights movement for the FBI.The Memphis paper reports how Withers' spying assisted J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial FBI director who long covertly monitored King and others considered radicals. Withers, the paper notes, gave the bureau a "front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis." In the 1960s, he provided information on everyone from the Invaders — a militant black power group — to church leaders, politicians and business owners. Experts believe the FBI paid Withers for spying.

The Upshot, a Yahoo! news blog, details how the Commercial Appeal made the discovery:
The newspaper tried unsuccessfully to obtain Withers' informant file, with the Justice Department rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests and refusing to acknowledge that such a file even exists. However, as Perrusquia writes, the government did release "369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted Withers -- by then a state employee who was taking payoffs -- carefully redacting references to informants -- with one notable exception."

And in those documents, the Commercial Appeal notes, the government inadvertently left a single reference to Withers' informant number, which "unlocked the secret of the photographer's 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released under FOIA 30 years ago."

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