Unfinished: Ernie's Secret

Episode 1: The Perfect Cover

NEWS REEL: Little Rock, Arkansas and the first phase of the trouble. The white population are determined to prevent colored students from going to the school their own children attend. 


WESLEY LOWERY, HOST: On the day nine Black students were escorted by the national guard into an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Ernest Withers  was the one who shot the photo.


NEWS REEL: The jury has just come back and has returned a verdict of not guilty.


WES: When two white men were acquitted of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Sumner, Mississippi, it was Ernest who got the picture.


DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: the year old protest against city buses is officially called off..


WES: And Ernest was there, his camera shutter clicking, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rode the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. 


KING: ...the negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the buses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis…[applause fades]


Ernest Withers was a legendary photographer. He took over a million photos before his death in 2007. Jackie Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Elvis, even president Richard Nixon -- Ernest photographed all of them. But it was his photos of the civil rights movement that are his most stunning, most enduring images. 


Ernest didn’t just capture history, Ernest helped create it. 


ANDREW YOUNG: Without a picture, we had no movement. 


WES: Andrew Young was an early leader in the civil rights movement, part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle.


YOUNG: Any time we were sitting around talking, he was in there taking pictures. Martin appreciated him for what his pictures were doing to help publicize what we were doing.


WES: Young says: “If you want to know what the fight for civil rights felt like, if you want to know what it looked like, just look at Ernest Withers’ photographs.” The pictures that Ernest took forced the country to look directly at the things it couldn’t or, in many cases, didn’t want to see. It’s clear that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders admired Ernest's loyalty, his dedication - his persistence.   


ERNEST WITHERS: The most important thing about doing anything is loyalty. 


WES: Loyalty - it mattered to Ernest. He talked about it  in an interview before his death.


ERNEST: Whatever people expect of you and whatever you commit to do, do it. You know, I wasn't a hard hustler, but I had to have a real sense of being trusted and respected for my word being my bond.


WES: To many, he was just Ernie - and when he called looking for information, King and the other leaders always answered him. Because they trusted him. But what if that trust was misplaced? As it turned out, there was a lot that Dr. King and his fellow civil rights activists didn’t know about Ernest, and about all of those photos he was taking. 




WES: I'm Wesley Lowery, and this season on Unfinished: Ernie's Secret, a story of dueling loyalties and hidden histories - and one man caught in the middle. Who and what was Ernest Withers loyal to - and what exactly was he hiding? The answers, as are so often the case, are more complicated than anyone might have imagined.


WILLIE O HENRY JR: Ernest was a hero and I don't know a hero who doesn't have flaws.


BILL ATKINS: I see him purely as a traitor.


ROSALIND WITHERS: We didn't even have the right to vote, so who are we to tell the FBI what to do?


BOBBY: I knew Ernie wasn't making any money, but I didn't know that he would stoop to undercut the movement.

TERRY: Yes, he did great pictures. but without Ernest Withers, we would not have had a lot of the suffering that we had.


LAWSON: Surviving as a man, as a photographer, I will say to you, was more important to Ernest Withers than any kind of disloyalty notions to Black people.




WES: There's a photograph I keep on the wall of my home office, right behind my desk. The first time I saw the image, I knew I needed to buy a print. In the center of the photo, there’s a young Black protestor. He’s mid-chant, his mouth wide, his eyes squinting tight. In his arms, he carries a white poster board, and in thick Black letters are the words “I Am a Man.” The “am” is underlined for emphasis.


The photo is from Ferguson, Missouri, back in August 2014, after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Hundreds, and then thousands of people had taken to the streets to show their anger, to demand justice. I arrived in Ferguson two days after Brown was killed, on assignment as a reporter for The Washington Post. And I've spent the years since, which is most of my career, writing about race, justice and policing in America.


So when I look up at the photo on my wall, I see the modern fight for racial justice. The plea, the demand, not just from that protestor, but from all of them, that our nation recognize their humanity. 


But I also see the long history of the civil rights fight. Because, the sign the protestor is holding, the “I Am a Man” slogan, it's a callback to the civil rights era. Actually, it's a callback to a particular photo from one particular protest. 


WMPS RADIO: Several thousand negro demonstrators are participating in this largest civil rights demonstration ever in Memphis, tennessee. Many of the demonstrators are carrying the sign “I Am a Man.” They stretch out for several blocks.


WES: It’s March 1968 and protestors are gathering. Weeks earlier, the city’s Black sanitation workers had walked off the job. They complained of horrible working conditions, abuse, racism, and neglect that had led to the deaths of two of their own. 


MLK JR: It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.


WES: King supported the strike, traveling to Memphis to join the striking workers. People like James Douglas. 


JAMES DOUGLAS: The signs we were carrying said ‘I Am a Man,’ and we were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.


[cross fade to sound of museum tour]


ROSALIND WITHERS: This is the most iconic. This is what he's noted for globally. that image is used. We get a request for that image from every part of the world.


WES: Ernest's daughter Rosalind Withers is showing me around the museum she founded after her father’s death. It's on beale street --right in the heart of Memphis. A small selection of his photos, hung in simple Black frames, line the walls.  


ROSALIND: Now, the way it's laid out, it's civil rights on this wall. And at the top, we actually note historically what it's covering…. (fading under) 


WES: Of all of his photographs, the most popular is one that Ernest took during that sanitation worker protest. It shows demonstrators lined across the street, holding up signs. It’s the original “I Am a Man” photograph. It’s one of the first pictures you see hanging in the gallery.


ROSALIND: It's making a statement. and when you think about “why do you have to wear a sign to say that?

WES: To say that “I Am a Man,”

ROSALIND: Yes, why would you need to do that? If you have to have a sign to say that I am a man, but if you see it in this spectrum it's in multitude. Why is this group having to make that statement? And that was clear.


WES: As the protestors stretched across the streets holding their I am a man signs, Ernest snapped a photo with his twin reflex camera. 


ROSALIND: The fact that he had a tool that exposed the injustice and he put it in front of the media the way he did, gave them life, or let them keep their lives. Because a lot of times life was taken and things were covered up and buried and none of this was known.

WES: But with a photo, and a photo that could go out, then everyone would know what happened.

ROSALIND: Exactly. 




WES: But here in Memphis, Ernest wasn’t just known as a civil rights photographer. He was the city’s family photographer.


BILL ATKINS: He took my baby pictures. Most of my infant pictures were taken by Ernest. 


WES: Bill Atkins was a young activist in Memphis, and Ernest was a close family friend. 


ATKINS: I grew up with Ernest coming in, sitting at our table, eating, dining with us. We were one of the first families to have a color tv and that made us popular. And people used to come over, you know, to watch color tv. So maybe 15, 20 people in our living room at one time watching the Ed Sullivan Show on a Sunday night, you know, just because we had color tv. And Ernest was always there. He was just that close. 


WES: Births, graduations, weddings, proms–Ernest got to know everybody in Black Memphis. And he wasn’t just taking pictures- he was making a personal connection.


COBY: The first time I met Ernest was in the living room in this house. He came and he took a family portrait.


MARK: He was just like a father to me, he was just like a father to me.


ATKINS: He literally chronicled my history from the time I was born up till, I guess, my years in the movement.


Coby: Every time I’d go to a movement activity, he'd be there. Every time we had a church rally or something, he'd be there.


ATKINS: So he heard everything, he saw everything, he knew everything. 


WES: But as the civil rights struggle grew, Ernest took on a steady flow of assignments from Black newspapers. The Black editors realized this was their story, their movement and so they needed to be on it.  Ernest became their go-to photographer. Here's an example:


In 1955 he traveled to Mississippi to cover the trial of the two white men accused of murdering Emmett ill. 




WES: Till was just 14 years old when he was savagely beaten, shot, and had his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River, after allegedly offending a white woman. The judge banned journalists from taking any pictures, a kind of visual gag order. But still, Ernest was in the courtroom when Till's great uncle, Mose Wright, took the stand.  


JAMES L HICKS: It was terrific tension in the courtroom at that time. 


WES: James L. Hicks was another Black journalist who covered the trial. Years later, in an oral history, he talked about what happened when the prosecution asked Mose if he could identify the men who had forced Till out of the house.


HICKS: Everybody called Uncle Mos and ... he said ah, Uncle Mos, can you identify the people that came to you that night? And he looked around, and there was a tension, and he says in his broken language, dar he.


WES: Mose Wright rose from his seat, he extended his arm, and he pointed at the two white defendants. It was a stunning sight - a Black man in the south, directly accusing two white men of murder.   


HICKS: The judge, he was pounding on his gavel and saying, order, order, like that. Because this was the peak of the trial when it came down to the identifying of these people. anything could happen.


WES: And just at that moment -- with Mose Wright’s arm still suspended in the air -- Ernest defied the judge’s order. He lifted his camera and he snapped a photo. As he recalled years later... 


ERNEST WITHERS: Nobody else were taking pictures inside of the emmett till trial in sumner mississippi but myself.


WES: The photo is a little blurry - but its message was clear. When it ran in newspapers across the country, it helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Here's civil rights leader Andrew Young again. 


ANDREW YOUNG: If Ernest Withers had not taken those pictures of Emmett Till in Mississippi, we might not have had a boycott in Montgomery in 1955.


WES: I want to take a moment to sit with what Andrew Young just said. Emmett Till’s murder, and the eventual acquittal of the men who killed him, are widely understood as the spark from which the entire civil rights movement sprung. And photographs, first of Till's battered body and then, from inside the courtroom... those were the primary way that the story spread across the country. What Andrew Young is saying is that, without Ernest's work, there may have been no civil rights movement.  


About two months after the trial, Rosa Parks, an activist in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. That launched a year-long bus boycott -- one of the civil rights movement’s first major campaigns. Parks would later say that Till's death was part of the inspiration for her protest. 




WES: When Alabama was forced to finally integrate its buses in 1956, Ernest Withers was there to photograph the victory ride. In one photo, he captured Martin Luther King sitting beside his close friend and fellow activist Ralph Abernathy. Here's Ernest  discussing the photo with an audience in 2004.


ERNEST WITHERS: This is a young Martin Luther King the same day at the end of the first ride, very proud when the bus ended up downtown in Montgomery. 


WES: It’s a black and white photo, and King and Abernathy are sitting together in one of the bus's first rows, wearing jackets and ties. They're in front of the white riders - there’s even a white guy standing in the back. An image like this, it would have been unthinkable even days earlier.  


ERNEST: There was a man that stood over me while I was making that picture of Martin Luther King, a very tall white man. He said ‘boy, you better be damn glad you didn't take my picture.’


WES: All of this was dangerous work for a Black photographer. In a 1995 interview, Ernest described how he often became a target.


ERNEST: Well, I felt at risk everywhere I go. And I felt somewhat at risk. one, any time you were using a camera, you were always a target of people that didn't want to be photographed. And of course, in Little Rock, I remember as we walked along the side, jeering crowd of white people where I just happened to look up and there was a woman really getting her mouth ready to spit on me.



ROSALIND WITHERS: It took courage for him to do what he did. 


WES: That’s Roz Withers again, Ernest's daughter. 


ROZ: And that's why he had a relationship with Martin King, because Martin recognized that if it's exposed, then that gives them that edge of awareness to take that or to make the next step. My brother refers to my father as being the google, the google of his time, you know, making people aware of things, educating them.


WES: Those relationships between Ernest and King and the other civil rights leaders, they became more important over time, more intimate over the years. 


ANDREW YOUNG: Ernest was the kind of guy that when he'd come to see you, he'd bring his latest pictures, and he'd lay them out, some of them he would give to us to use in our magazines that we published. But he shared much of his work with us.


WES: Andrew Young says that Ernest was always in the room. He had nearly unlimited access when Dr. King and his aides were in Memphis. 


YOUNG: Martin had known Withers since the Montgomery bus boycott days. They were friends. 


WES: He was a regular at their planning meetings, present in moments of calm and quiet.


ERNEST: This is Martin King in room 307, 1966 in the Lorraine Hotel at Memphis, Tennessee. 


WES: Ernest is describing a photo he took in 1966. Dr. King is stretched out on his  hotel bed. He's in his shirt sleeves, he's relaxing.


ERNEST: He laid down on the bed, and if that was in Memphis, he was waiting on someone to bring in a platter of catfish. 


WES: Ernest was good company...


ANDREW YOUNG: He was a lot of fun. He was always telling jokes. And, I mean, he was like a comedian. Everybody knew him and everybody liked him. He was like family, the guy in the corner with a camera - constantly snapping photos - seeing everything, hearing everything  - and taking pictures of everyone. It turns out being a photographer may also have been the perfect cover...That’s after the break.






WES: What did you know about Memphis when you first showed up?

MARC PERRUSQUIA: I mean, I knew about the history of the place a fair amount, you know. Birthplace of the blues and its relationship to the Mississippi Delta and whatnot. I was kind of like a kid in a candy store.


WES: Reporter Marc Perrusquia arrived in Memphis in 1989 to take a job at The Commercial Appeal, the city’s daily paper. To the young journalist, the city seemed to have everything -- the blues, history, politics, corruption…


MARC: To me, it was a journalist's dream come true because, you know, the places I worked before, they didn't have those kinds of experiences.

WES: Of course. Now, over the years, how did your journalism interact with Memphis's civil rights history? 

MARC: Well, it did a lot. I think it's unavoidable. You know, they always say that there are two kings in Memphis, you know, Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, and then Dr. King. And so there was just no way as a journalist that you could not write about Dr. King at some time or another, and so it was just something that I got into over time.


WES: In 1997, the local news in Memphis was dominated by one story - James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Dr. King. He was trying to get out of prison. Even though he had confessed to the killing, Ray now claimed that he had been framed…


MARC: His lawyers were floating all manner of pleadings before the criminal court here in Shelby County, alleging all sorts of conspiracies. 


WES: But while he was working on that story, another one fell into Marc's lap…


MARC: And that's when I ran across this guy, a former FBI agent who'd been involved in counterintelligence and the security investigation of Dr. King.


[sound of entering his office]

MARC: Ok well, what I have here is, um, [sigh] I guess you'd call it work product of me in my chaotic way of filing information related to Ernest Withers, the ten part corruption investigation, the spying in memphis, just on and on and on.


WES: Inside Marc’s office, there are boxes of files -30 years of his reporting. He’s a bit of a saver.


MARC: You know, I'm a real packrat. I have a habit of saving everything. 


WES: Marc is thumbing through a binder--he’s looking for the notes from his conversations, years ago, with an fbi agent who he calls Jim.


MARC: I'm trying to find this. You're down here in my– I used to type up all my notes and so that's what i've got here in this three ring binder is the notes from these interviews.


WES: Marc initially interviewed Jim while reporting on the King assassination. Much was known by then about how the FBI had spied on King throughout the civil rights movement -- bugging his phones, for example. But Marc was trying to figure out  if the FBI had been spying in the days leading up to his death.


MARC: We were talking about the security detail, how they were watching King.


WES: Marc asked Jim – “did the fbi bug king’s motel room? did they use electronic surveillance? “


MARC: And he said absolutely not. 


WES: “We didn’t need any of that” Jim claimed–he said the FBI had something better.


MARC: What he said was, ‘you know, we had no need for any electronic surveillance because we had perfect informant coverage around The Lorraine. And, you know, and one of them was Ernest Withers.


WES: It was a bombshell. Ernest Withers, the premier civil rights photographer in the South, a Memphis legend, a civil rights icon– accused of being an FBI informant. 




MARC: And I was floored by that. I was floored by that because I knew Ernest Withers. Even at that time, as an icon of the movement.


WES: It was so shocking that at first, Marc didn’t believe it.


MARC: I said really? Withers was an informant? Oh, yeah. The way he put it is that anybody that was important who came to town, people they considered agitators or troublemakers, he would get photos and information on. He says he was a very valuable informant.


WES: He asked Jim again, “are you sure?”


MARC: And this is a quote:’“oh, yeah. he's been an informant.’


WES: And then Marc asked why? Why would Ernest Withers do this?


MARC: He said, let me tell you something. Ernest was in it for the money.


WES: What Jim was saying was that Ernest Withers wasn’t just passing along little tidbits here and there– he was on the government payroll. It was a stunning allegation. But there was just one problem with everything Marc was hearing…


MARC: He said, if I ever wrote that story, he would deny it. I mean, I wasn't gonna get any help from him. Agents never give up informant information. I mean, that's like a reporter revealing a confidential source, you don't do it. It's a sin. And he was saying it was a crime too. You go to jail, and get a ten thousand dollar fine. It’s kind of like, you know, in a chatty moment, he let it out and wanted me to know about it, but he wasn't going to back it up.


WES: Marc left the meeting with what felt like a major scoop, one with historical implications. But all that he had was one, off the record source. No evidence. No documents. Nothing. And so, Marc didn’t pursue the story further.  


MARC: It just seemed to me that it was a story that couldn't be done, that I couldn't get. And it's just one of these things, like many things, another rabbit trail that you just closed the books on. And there was a lot of other work to do. You know, there are other stories. So, I moved on. 




WES: Those notes from Jim the FBI agent went into a binder, that went into a box - that went into a shed in Marc's backyard, collecting dust for the next 10 years. But even if he didn’t immediately pursue the story, Marc understood its potential implications: 

implications for the civil rights movement, for the activists who may have been betrayed, and for the legacy of a legendary photographer. 


Had Ernest Withers, the man that everybody in the Black part of Memphis knew - used his camera not only for the good of the movement, but also to betray it?  




WES: Next time on Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret…If Ernest Withers had a secret, he wasn’t the only one. 





MARC: They don't know what the hell we're talking about. 

TOBIN: They would neither confirm nor deny that they had any records on someone named Ernest Withers.


WES: This season of Unfinished is a co-production of Stitcher and Scripps. Our senior producer is Roy Hurst. The editor is Tracy Samuelson. Our show was written by Ellen Weiss. Executive producers are Kameel Stanley and Ellen Weiss. Our music is composed by Edward “Tex” Miller. Mixing is by Casey Holford. Special thanks to reporter and author Marc Perrusquia for sharing documents, sources, and his years of work on this story. Marc is the author of the book A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement. He’s currently the director at the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis. 

Thanks also to the WGBH archives. We had production help from Mckenna Smith and Suzanne Reburn. Our FBI documents were brought to life by actor Corey Landis. Fact checking was by Kelvin Bias. Stitcher’s Vice President of Content is Peter Clowney. If you like the show and believe in this kind of storytelling, please give us a five star review on Apple Podcasts. It’ll help more people discover Unfinished. I’m Wesley Lowery, thanks for listening.