Newly released records from the informant file of the late photographer Ernest Withers who died in 2007 show Withers’ secret life as a “racial” informant for the FBI. The records, 348 pages, were released under court order to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The records sketch a 14-year relatgionship between Withers, a freelance news photographer who took seminal photos of the civil rights movement, and the FBI, which recruited him in 1958 as the movement gained its initial momentum.
He remained a paid informant until at least 1972, helping agents monitor Memphis’ African-American community, deemed vulnerable by the FBI to subversion, first from Communism and later from black militantism. Heavily redacted in places — an unspecified “volume” of pages were withheld — the records add sharper focus to a murky period when federal and local law enforcement maintained “red squads” or intelligence units that spied on citizens whose political views or actions were deemed dangerous to domestic security. Celebrated figures —Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, singers Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin — appear in Withers’ file.