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Black photographer Ernest Withers, a hero until he wasn’t

Ernest Withers

Meet Ernest Withers, civil rights photographer, and FBI informant. “The Picture Taker” reveals the man and motives behind the iconic images.

Withers was an Army vet, a police officer, a photographer, and it was later learned that he cooperated with the FBI on securing photos of everyday Memphis citizens and those who were committed to justice for Blacks.

Ernest Withers
WITHERS STANDS IN front of his truck that he used to travel
throughout Memphis. At one time he developed photos in his bathroom.

Sometime in the early 1960s, some Memphis residents registered to vote and were evicted by their landlords because they did so. A photo that Withers had just casually taken of one little girl was the fodder that caused many families, including 100 children, to be relegated to “Tent City.” Tent City, also called Freedom Village, was an encampment outside of Memphis in Fayette County, Tennessee. It began in 1960 and lasted about two years.

I didn’t know that the 1968 sanitation workers strike began because two sanitation workers in Memphis, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had taken shelter from inclement weather inside the back of a garbage truck. After a while, the compactor started and the two were crushed to death.

In late February 1968, frustrated by the city’s response to the latest event in a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its Black employees, 1,300 Black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike to demand recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. The workers were supported by the Invaders—a group of Black men who modeled themselves after the Black Panthers.

Ernest Withers
ONE OF THE millions of photos that Ernest Withers took was of Dr. Martin Luther King, shown here in his Lorraine Motel bedroom. (Photo by The Withers Family Trust).

His associates didn’t want him to visit, but in April Dr. King travelled to Memphis anyway, only to be met with a tragic end. All hell broke loose with rioting and police intervention. But the Invaders were singled out by the FBI, although they didn’t actively participate in the march.

The famous photo of Andrew Young and others on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel after Dr. King was assassinated wasn’t taken by Withers, but he allowed South African photographer Joseph Louw to develop the photo in his studio. He was able, however, to take photos of the room hours earlier, which are included in his photo exhibit.

Withers documented these and other activities and fed photos to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who was bent on preventing the rise of a “Black messiah.”

“The Picture Taker” explores these possibilities and just how Withers was able to afford to travel around the country taking his vast array of photos.

Was Withers a friend or foe to the civil rights community?

“The Picture Taker” explores these possibilities and just how Withers was able to afford to travel around the country taking his vast array of photos.

Withers died in 2007, and in 2010, a mind-boggling investigation revealed that many of the more than one million photos that he had taken had been funneled to an FBI agent—essentially, he was a paid informant.

The question may not necessarily be Withers’ motives, but the immense body of his work over 60 years and how these archived photographs make a statement as they chronicled Black life not only in Memphis but across the country—photos of weddings, funerals, communions, birthday parties and lively urban life throughout Memphis.

The Better Angels Society Organization writes: “But a newspaper exposé published three years after his death threatened that legacy. Acting on a tip from a former agent, and digging through files obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, an equally intrepid journalist discovered that Withers had been a paid FBI informant throughout the 1960’s, providing photos and insider knowledge about those who’d welcomed him into their fold.

“For some who knew him as the man who bravely documented their struggles from the Emmett Till murder trial through the King assassination, it seemed the ultimate betrayal. For others, it was yet another example of a hostile government trying to undermine a community through division and suspicion.”

In the tradition of Chicago photojournalist John H. White and photographer Lee Bey, “every time he snapped, the camera told a story,” said one of his granddaughters in the documentary that included commentary by Andrew Young, Elaine Cleaver, baseball player Leonard Draper, Sr., daughter Rosalind Withers, soul singing star Carla Thomas, daughter Frances Williams, Field Investigator with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Rosetta Miller, who was labeled a “controversial Negro,” and family friend Coby Smith.

From Phil Bertelsen, the director of “Who Killed Malcolm X?,” “The Picture Taker” screened on October 19 at the Indie Memphis Film Festival Virtual, which runs through October 24, with films screening in local Memphis theaters and online. It will also air on PBS stations early next year but look for it in theaters in the meantime. For more information about the fest, visit

Breaking movie
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].

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