TOPICS > Nation

Civil Rights Photographer May Have Led Double Life as FBI Informant

September 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Ernest Withers, a famed Civil Rights photographer during the 50's and 60's, may have been pulling double duty for the FBI as a paid informant. Margaret Warner talks to veteran journalist Earl Caldwell for more.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a famed civil rights photographer who appears to have also done duty — double duty — for the FBI. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: A freelance photographer for the black press in the 1950s and 1960s, Ernest Withers chronicled landmark moments in the battle for civil rights. He covered the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the bus boycotts, and protests like the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis. He was treated like an insider and given intimate access to movement leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King.

But, this week, The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Withers also worked as an FBI informant, most probably paid from at least 1968 to 1970. For more, we turn to Earl Caldwell. He reported on the civil rights struggle for The New York Times and knew Withers. He’s now a professor at Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism.

And, Mr. Caldwell, welcome. Give us first a sense of Ernest Withers, and — and how important his work was to this country’s understanding of the civil rights movement.

EARL CALDWELL, professor, Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism: His work was hugely important, because he brought back the pictures. You know, you can have 1,000 words, but it’s the pictures. And he had access. He was on the inside. So, he was able to show America things that you couldn’t tell America. But he had those — he had so many. And he cataloged everything. So, I think his work was hugely important.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said yesterday that you were stunned when you heard the news of what The Commercial Appeal was reporting. Why was that? I mean, was it hard to reconcile that with the man you knew?

EARL CALDWELL: Well, because he was a journalist, and the black journalists had made this commitment to the black community that we weren’t going to be spies. We weren’t going to be eavesdropping for law enforcement, that we were going to be true to what we said. And I was taken aback, because he had — his record comes out that he was not only doing — but in such a massive way.

MARGARET WARNER: Did he ever saying anything to you that indicated that this might have been going on?

EARL CALDWELL: Actually, in our conversations, it was exactly the opposite. We were like, you know, in this together. We were colleagues. I had no idea, although I was very much aware that the pressure was — to be an informant has been — it was very intense, particularly about — on people such as Ernest who was moving through all of these various channels and had this tremendous access.

MARGARET WARNER: So, when you say pressure, what do you mean, pressure from the FBI?

EARL CALDWELL: Pressure from the FBI. In my own case, the FBI hounded me, hounded me about being an informant on the Black Panthers, which was the subject of my reporting at that time for The New York Times.

MARGARET WARNER: And how would they go about it?

EARL CALDWELL: Well, they call you on the phone, and they start off by saying, listen, all we want you to do is just, you know, what people are saying, what they’re — they make it seem like it’s so innocent, like it’s really nothing, that you’re not really spying, you’re just helping us out, and that they’re trying to — that they’re on your side, and it’s — make it very engaging. And if you don’t have that line there that says, no, that’s not what I do, you can get roped in.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the records that the newspapers got ahold of show nothing about any — about his motives whatsoever.

There is something in the articles about, he was under some financial pressure. He had also been a cop in the past. Was the FBI good at honing in on any potential point of vulnerability like that?

EARL CALDWELL: That was — see, this is the thing. They wanted everything. So, they were — they were always asking everybody, you can do this. And they made it like it was an act of patriotism. You’re serving your country. We need you, and it’s — and it’s so harmless. You can do this.

And, also, as you say, Ernest did have that background piece of being a police officer.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, put on your journalist professor’s hat. And if you are talking to young people about this, how would you want them to look at it?

I mean, is this a betrayal of his ethics as a journalist? Is it a betrayal as an African-American who actually embraced the goals of the civil rights movement?

EARL CALDWELL: I believe it’s — I believe it’s all of those things. But let me speak as a journalist. To me, this is a very serious and special trust. It’s a bond that you make with the public. People have to believe you. They have to believe that you are who you say that you are, and that is your only purpose, is in serving the public.

We, as journalists, we say we represent the public. You can’t represent the police department and the — all of these investigative agencies at the same time. You’re either one, or you’re the other. And the sad part of this thing with Ernest is, a lot of reporters now will suffer because, when they go and present their credentials, people will say, how do we know?

MARGARET WARNER: And, yet, in Memphis next month, there’s going to be a museum opened, the Ernest Withers Museum, with a lot of his photographs, right in his old studio on Beale Street.

Do you think that, in the end, you will be able to separate the man from the work, and that the work will endure?

EARL CALDWELL: The work will endure because the people are — they have this — people understand. And they made this trust with Ernest. And they allowed him to come in to all of these places and to do this great work that he did.

The work will endure. But there will be another side. And that is, is that people will say to this next generation, they see people coming in, how can we trust you? How do we know? How can we be sure? How do we know that you’re not another Ernest Withers?

MARGARET WARNER: Earl Caldwell, thank you very much.

EARL CALDWELL: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.