ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Called 338 night Tuesday,November 22nd. He's in Washington with his son.
WES: The diary entries are brief. Retired FBI agentBill Lawrence had a problem.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: I tried seven times evening,November 21st to call 338 at above number.
WES: One of his old confidential informants had lefta message at the house earlier that day, but now Bill couldn't reach him. Thiswas an informant Bill had worked with for nearly a decade. An informant onlyknown in the record books as ME338R. And Bill needed to talk to 338. He needsto talk to him now.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: A.M. of November 22nd, at7:30. Tried again. No luck.
WES: If he couldn't get 338 on the phone before 10a.m. the following day, something very bad might happen. ME338R of course, wasErnest Withers and on 10 a.m., November 22nd, 1978, Ernest was set to testifybehind closed doors before several members of a congressional committee. Forthe nearly 18 years that Ernest had been working with the FBI, only a handfulof people knew his secret. But now Congress was investigating the assassinationof Martin Luther King Jr. And others now knew Ernest's name. They weredetermined to ask him what he'd been doing for the FBI at the time King waskilled. Those frantic phone calls from Bill Lawrence. He wanted to know whatErnest planned to say, because what Ernest told that congressional committeecould determine whether or not the whole world would learn a secret that thesetwo men had held on to for years. This is Unfinished: Ernie's Secret. I'mWesley Lowery.
WES: By this point. Bill Lawrence had been retiredfrom the FBI for eight years and he had moved with his wife from Memphis toSpruce Pine, North Carolina.
BETTY: He taught one or two criminal law courses eachterm at Maylin Technical Community College. He was on the church vestry andtaught Sunday school. He'd started working with the Special Olympics kids. Hewas president of the Kiwanis that year and managed their pecan sales.
WES: Retired life was good. It wasn't complicated.And Bill had put the FBI behind him. This is Betty Lawrence, Bill's daughter.
BETTY: And he cooked and baked. This is the mainthing. Almost every day he gave away so many batches of bread, brownies,chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies. But he would give them to people ifthey were sick. He'd come by with a loaf of bread.
WES: But then one day in 1978, Bill got a subpoena totestify before a select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Tounderstand the origins of that subpoena, we have to go back a few years to aseries of extraordinary events and revelations in the early 1970s.
NEWSREEL: What did the president know and when did heknow it?
WES: In 1973, the Senate investigation into Watergaterevealed an array of dirty tricks and dirty politics by Richard Nixon's WhiteHouse. This included directing national intelligence agencies like the FBI tocarry out domestic security operations to cover up illegal activity.
NIXON: Therefore, I shall resign the presidencyeffective at noon tomorrow.
WES: Four months after Nixon resigned in August 1974,the New York Times published a front page story claiming that the CIA had beenspying on anti-war activists during the Nixon administration. An outrage Senateresponded by creating a committee to investigate the FBI, CIA and otherintelligence agencies.
SENATE: The hearing will please come to order.
WES: It was known as the Church Committee, namedafter its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho.
SENATE: Today, we are here to review the majorfindings of our full investigation of FBI, domestic intelligence, including theCOINTEL program and other programs aimed at domestic targets. FBI surveillanceof law abiding citizens and groups, political abuses of FBI intelligence, andseveral specific cases of unjustified intelligence operations.
WES: The committee had a daunting task: examinedecades of alleged abuses in a short amount of time, just 16 months. The FBIwas under particular scrutiny for targeting the civil rights movement and fortrying to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At one point, Senator Churchread from that letter the FBI sent Dr. King, the one that had hinted atsuicide.
SENATE: King, there is only one thing left for you todo. You know what it is.
WES: The Church Committee released its report inApril 1976. Their findings were stunning. Decades of intelligence agenciesundermining the constitutional rights of citizens. Massive surveillance bothhere and abroad. Watch list containing more than a million names, including thename of Senator Frank Church. And also among the findings were these: that theCIA withheld information from Congress about the assassination of PresidentKennedy and that long time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had held a deep animustowards Dr. Martin Luther King at the time of his death. As a result, inSeptember 1976, Congress launched yet another investigation, one that wouldreexamine the deaths of Kennedy and King. The House Select Committee onAssassinations. This was the committee that subpoenaed Bill Lawrence, and thiswas the committee that brought Bill and Ernest Withers back into each other'slives.
BETTY: In 1972, he started keeping a diary, and Ihave his diaries for every year until he died in 1990.
WES: This is Betty Lawrence again, Bill's daughter.After her mother died in 2009, Betty discovered her father's diaries, notesthat he kept in various handmade booklets. Bill would take sheets of eight anda half by eleven, old mimeographed reports. He'd tear them in half, and thenhe'd staple the pages together.
BETTY: He was just writing in his diary every day,and he kept them all. And there they are.
WES: Betty pulled out the notes from 1978. The stackwas nearly four inches thick. Her father wrote in black ink. His handwritingwas messy. That year, Bill wrote about a lot of things about hiking and thecommunity association. But in 1978, Bill also wrote a lot about the committeethat was investigating the assassinations of Kennedy and King.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: FBI forced to cooperate andfeels its investigation of the King murder will stand any and all scrutiny. Allcurrent and ex agents released from any signed non-disclosure agreements. FBIasks, however, that agents do not disclose or reveal identities of sources liveor dead.
NEWS REEL: Yesterday, as you no doubt heard in thenews, the Assassinations Committee of the House of Representatives began itsfirst formal investigation hearings into the murder of Dr. Martin Luther KingJr.
WES: The Assassinations Committee opened its publichearings in August. On day two, they called the star witness, James Earl Ray.Ray said that he did not kill Dr. King, that his original guilty plea was afraud, that he'd been set up. Bill listened to the hearings.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: 9/16/78, heard parts of radiobroadcast of House committee interview of James Earl Ray, represented by MarkLane. Real soap opera.
WES: Over the next few months, the committee wouldcall lots of witnesses, people who had worked with Dr. King, the younger, moremilitant black power activists and many former FBI agents. And then they calledBill Lawrence.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: 10/31/78. Subpoena. HouseCommittee on Assassinations. Arrived certified mail. Regarding M.L. Kingassassination.
WES: In his diary, Bill seemed annoyed by the ideathat he'd have to speak with Congress at all.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Can't understand why mytestimony deemed pertinent. Time will tell.
WES: But of course Congress wanted to talk to BillLawrence. This was the guy who was in charge of the FBI in Memphis at the verytime that Dr. King had been killed in Memphis. No one would have known what theFBI was up to in that city at that time better than Bill Lawrence.
BETTY: He was pretty sure that there were going to bepeople on that committee that really wanted to paint him in a light that hedidn't think was accurate and he wanted to make sure that he did his best jobas he could defending the FBI.
WES: In his diary, Bill Lawrence was defensive. Thereare several entries where he criticizes the entire process, where he says thatthe committee's questions are not designed to ascertain true facts.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: But seemingly designed toprove members' prejudgment of some sort of conspiracy.
WES: Maybe he was just grouchy in his old age. Maybeit was because he'd wanted to leave his FBI years behind him. But maybe it wasbecause he was embarrassed. The assassination of Dr. King had happened on hiswatch. And now a congressional committee was asking questions. It was runningdown all sorts of leads, investigating all sorts of theories, including oneabout what happened at that demonstration in Memphis back in March 1968, theone in support of the striking sanitation workers, the one led by Dr. King thathad turned violent.
NEWS REEL: Police are now again chasing more Negroyouths and an attempt to break up this wild mele a disturbance on Main Street.
WES: The committee wanted to know if the FBI hadincited the violence in order to embarrass King. That would be pretty majorsince the failure of that march is what forced Dr. King to return to Memphis,where ultimately he was killed. Bill knew that this is what they wanted to askhim about.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: The committee is trying toprove or disprove that Memphis Police Department and or FBI used agentprovocateurs to create violence inMemphis during King's visits.
WES: Shortly after the subpoena arrived, Bill learnedsomething even more troubling. The committee had also asked to talk to one ofhis informants. They wanted to speak to Ernest. Bill was stunned. How didCongress even know that Ernest existed?
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Don't know if ECW will haveto identify himself as informant. If so, he and family will be endangered andjeopardized. A dangerous situation.
WES: As it turns out, the congressional investigatorshad started focusing in on that small group of paid racial informants who wereworking in Memphis in 1968. There were only five of them, and the committeeasked to see their files. The FBI initially resisted, but ultimately the bureauagreed to hand over the files with the names of the informants redacted. In hisdiary, Bill grew concerned about what could come next.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: House assassination committeestaff and U.S. Justice Department have been trying to identify our informants,including E.C.W..
WES: E.C.W Ernest Columbus Withers. We don't knowexactly how it happened, but congressional investigators figured out Ernest'sname. Bill felt betrayed, like the FBI had violated its sacred oath to protectErnest's identity. According to Bill's diary, Ernest agreed to meet with a fewmembers of the committee behind closed doors. Bill wrote that Ernest called himbefore the meeting, worried that his role as an informant could become public.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: This could jeopardize hislife and ability to live in Memphis and could jeopardize careers of members ofhis family.
WES: The stakes for Bill and Ernest had never beenhigher. For years, they had done everything possible to keep their relationshipsecret. Bill Lawrence was devastated. He believed that the government he'dserved for decades was now betraying him. This is from Bill's diary.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: The FBI broke a sacredcovenant given to an informant that his identity would not be revealed and thathis confidential relationship with the FBI would be protected.
WES: And then he warned--
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Our intelligence is beingcompletely destroyed. For where in the future will the U.S. find people whowill ever agree to become sources and informants? Well, knowing that yearslater, their identities may be revealed by some branch of the federalgovernment.
WES: Bill wrote that he and Ernest had been thrown tothe wolves, that Ernest was now a sitting duck, that this was all dangerous andinexcusable. According to Bill's diary, Ernest called him after he was donemeeting with congressional investigators. He said they asked about his role inthe protest that turned violent and about those wooden sticks, the ones thatended up being used as weapons. And here's where things got messy. And again,keep in mind these conversations, these details, all this back and forth, It'sfrom Bill Lawrence from what he wrote in his diary. There's nothing from Ernestabout any of this. And the committee's records about his testimony have neverbeen made public. In the diary, Bill wrote that Ernest had told him how he'ddriven a friend to buy the wood and rent the saw to make those sticks. But Billwrites that when Ernest spoke to the congressional committee, he denied knowinganything about the sticks. Even more important, Ernest had downplayed his workwith the FBI, saying that Bill had never directed him or given him assignments.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Said he sold FBI picturesjust as he did to Jet.
WES: Here's what Bill wrote.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: 338 claims he told them hesold many pictures to FBI, but he was not a member of any group as such andthus not privy to inside info.
WES: In other words, Ernest was telling Congress thatthe FBI was just a client, that he wasn't a loyal longtime informant racingback to Bill Lawrence to share the movement's greatest secrets. Here in frontof Congress, again, according to Bill's diary, Ernest had contradicted whatBill had been writing into his official reports and what Bill was now preparingto testify to himself.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Seems that 338 either doesn'trecall or won't admit that he furnished FBI and WHL with such in-depth info asit would make him look like a snitch, informant or traitor to black race, etc..This may end up being my word against 338.
WES: This bill knew was dangerous. If Ernest and Billtold different stories, or if Ernest contradicted the official FBI reports, itwould raise serious questions. Was someone lying under oath?
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Will 338 corroborate andverify what I in 1968 reported him to have said? 338's problem is that he's onthe defensive about his 3//28/68 participation in buying and renting a saw toget the 2x2 polls.
WES: We have reason to at least partially believeBill on this. That's because in 2003, Ernest gave an interview acknowledgingthat he and a friend had rented the saw. But what should we make about the restof it? We know that Ernest was an informant, but almost everything we knowabout the extent of his work is based on Bill Lawrence's FBI reports. That'salways made me a bit uncomfortable. And here, according to Bill's diary, andthe only moment we're aware of in which Ernest was ever asked about theveracity of those FBI reports, he said that they were inaccurate. Here's howBill imagined he'd explain the discrepancies were he ever asked.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: With regard to three, three,eight. My position is and always will be, that if info attributable to him isin the files, that is what he told me at the time, ten and a half years ago.And if he now denies it, it must be due to a natural faulty memory or recallminute data after that many years.
WES: Will Ernest and Bill team up one more time?That's after the break.
WES: On Tuesday, November 21st, 1978, Bill Lawrencewalked into room 345 of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Justafter 9 a.m.. He swore to tell the truth. His testimony was public. Members ofthe House Assassinations Committee asked about those sticks, the placards thatended up being used as weapons. Even though Bill had written in his diary thatit was Ernest who had purchased the wood and cut the sticks, he told Congressthat the sticks had been furnished by local ministers who organized strike.Like Ernest, Bill Lawrence was telling a different story to Congress than hehad told in private. Soon, Bill was being asked about his work with informantsand about his work with Ernest in particular.
Speaker 1 How they found time to describe him atparticular point is a man.
WES: The hearing was broadcast on the radio. AndMargaret? Bill's wife recorded her husband on a cassette player. We've got asmall excerpt of that recording. It's hard to hear, but Bill is asked how oftenhe met with this informant in the days leading up to MLK's assassination.
Speaker 1 And early contact with the source. Maybesometimes two, three times a week at least.
WES: Probably would have been in almost daily contactwith the source, Bill responded. And how did that contact occur?
BILL LAWRENCE (RADIO): I remember that I had anoccasion to do the same thing. Otherwise, I would hope that he would call me,which he frequently did.
WES: I would call him otherwise I would hope that hewould call me, which he frequently did.
BILL LAWRENCE (RADIO): And periodically.
WES: Sometimes, Bill said they would meet topersonally exchange information.
BILL LAWRENCE (RADIO): Or make connections topersonally exchange information or descriptions and photographs. Things of thatnature.
WES: Go over descriptions, any photographs, things ofthat nature. And then, according to the transcript, Bill was asked, Mr.Lawrence, is there any doubt in your mind that the information which youattributed to that source in 1968 did in fact come from that source? They neverused his name. But reading the testimony, we know that they're talking aboutErnest and we know that they're trying to figure out why the two men storiesdon't line up. Could Bill have exaggerated or even made up things that heattributed to Ernest? Bill insisted that he accurately recorded what the sourcehad told him. There was no doubt in my mind, he said. In his closing remarks,Bill Lawrence made one last appeal to the committee and appeal to protect theidentity of his informant.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: If the identities of theseinformants, living or dead are ever revealed to unauthorized sources, theirlives will be placed in danger. They are going to be jeopardized. They can beharassed and the feedback can even affect their families.
WES: If this committee made those names public, Billsaid they would be putting the entire nation in danger.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Once we cease to retain theidentities of informants in confidence in this country, where will we ever andI repeat that. Where will we ever find people who will be informants in ourfuture to our combined peril?
WES: 2 hours later, Bill Lawrence walked out of thehearing room and headed back to North Carolina. When he got home, there was amessage that Ernest had called. This is the night when Bill calls him backseven times but never gets an answer. When Bill finally reached him the nextmorning, Ernest said that he was headed back to Capitol Hill to testify againbehind closed doors. Bill knew that he didn't have much time. In his diary, hewrote that he urged Ernest to admit to the investigators that he had been alongtime informant.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: That he could inadvertentlycommit perjury by denying that he had ever furnished info, which I hadattributed to him and had so reported.
WES: According to the diary, Bill offered Ernestcoaching on what to say. Bill writes that he told Ernest.
ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: If his confidentialrelationship with me had been based on and motivated by his concern for thepeaceful and effective preservation of the civil rights movement, a concernaimed at trying to prevent or deter its exploitation and possiblecounterproductive destruction or diminution of effectiveness. That he shouldsay so, and that if his purpose in cooperating with the FBI was to detect anddeter violence, either by furnishing info or by counseling, that he should sayso. And if his cooperation was based on patriotism and concerns of civicmorality aimed at protecting his family, race and community from destructiveviolence and not for mere monetary gain, that he should say so. And that if inreality he assumed a posture of financial sacrifice, i.e. taking so much timeaway from his business, etc., and putting in long hours, much at nights and onweekends, that he should say so.
WES: This conversation seems on its face to have beenpretty inappropriate. It's the morning that Ernest is supposed to testifybefore Congress about his work with the FBI. His former FBI handler is on thephone with him, urging him to say certain things. Ultimately, the committeefound no evidence of an FBI plot to sabotage that Memphis March. In its finalreport, the committee wrote that there was no basis for conclusion that the FBIdirectly or through its informants, had provoked the violence. They foundnothing to support the idea that the FBI intentionally brought about the deathof Dr. King. The evidence, wrote the committee was overwhelming that James EarlRay was a lone assassin. But perhaps most importantly for our story, thecommittee never outed Ernest, never making his role as an informant public. Wedon't know much about what happened between Bill Lawrence and Ernest Withersafter that traumatic day in November 1978. The only time Ernest is mentionedafterwards in Lawrence's diary is the following month, on December 18th, 1978,when he writes that he got a $68 phone bill attributable to the phone calls hemade related to his appearance before Congress. According to Betty Lawrence,her father and Ernest did communicate for a couple more years.
BETTY: They exchanged Christmas cards. Long afterDaddy retired. So I know that relationship was real.
WES: Betty says she has her father's Christmas cardlist from 1980. Ernest is on it.
BETTY: You know, I knew that he and daddy werefriends. I still feel that way. They liked each other. I mean, you don't sendChristmas cards ten years after you've seen a person if they're not yourfriend.
WES: Life didn't get easier for Ernest after hisappearance on Capitol Hill. In 1979, he pled guilty to extortion stemming fromthe clemency for cash scandal that we told you about earlier in this series.That's the one where aides to the Tennessee governor were accused of sellingpardons. As far as we know, Ernest never told prosecutors that he had been aninformant for the FBI, and if he had, it might have helped him avoid the fivemonths that he spent in prison. About a decade later, starting in the early1990s, there was a surge of interest in his photography. A new civil rightsmuseum had opened in Memphis, located in the former Lorraine Motel. It featuredat least 17 of his photographs. Soon, there were books devoted to his work anddocumentaries about his life.
Speaker 3 Ernest Withers grew up in segregatedMemphis, and he proudly proclaims his Manasses roots.
WES: In his final years, Ernest was celebrated as acivil rights hero and recognized as one of the most important photographers ofthe 20th century. When he died in 2007, he carried his secret with him to thegrave. Betty Lawrence says her father wrote in his diary every day until hedied in 1990. He, too, carried the secret of his relationship with ErnestWithers to his grave. But he left a long paper trail, in his memos and in hisdiary, you can see a carefully crafted legacy. Bill Lawrence, the dedicated FBIagent, avenger of communism, defender of the nation. But what in the end was hedefending the nation from? Was there actually any real threat beyond ideas andpolitical beliefs that challenged the status quo? Reading his memos, his diary,and knowing what we know now, what you see is just how distorted the FBI's viewwas, how often the danger that it saw was just made up to justify its actions.Ernest's secret was safe, but the FBI had been exposed to the world and therewere consequences. Congress passed reforms to rein in domestic surveillance. Ifintelligence agencies wanted to spy on Americans in America, they would need toshow that there was some real criminal activity going on and they'd need awarrant from a special court without that warrant. They were committing afelony. The goal was to make it hard for government agents to target peoplejust because of race or political beliefs. Even in Memphis, new restrictionswere put in place. Here's reporter Marc Perrusquia.
MARC: There's a standing order from 1978 that theMemphis Police Department cannot engage in political intelligence gathering.They cannot monitor or keep files on activists who are engaging in lawful FirstAmendment, you know, right to dissent.
WES: We know that none of these changes totally stopthe abuse and that following the September 11th attacks, Congress reversed manyof these reforms and gave the intelligence agencies even broader authority tospy on Americans. And then, 12 years later, Edward Snowden, a former contractorfor the CIA, revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting thetelephone records of tens of millions of Americans. Back in Memphis--
Speaker 1 Developing tonight, a federal judge saysthe Memphis Police Department cannot spy on people for political reasons.
WES: In recent years, the Memphis P.D. has beencaught surveilling activists who taken to the streets in response to policeviolence.
MARC: They're looking at Black Lives Matter activistsand others and keeping files and information on them because they believe thatthey're potentially violent, which there's no probable cause of that. They justthink that they might be because of things that they've done and theassociations and some of it's bias and some of those based on, you know, afoundation that doesn't really hold up. But, you know, they're doing it again.I mean, the history is repeating itself.
WES: With all the advances in technology, it's a loteasier today than it was in Hoover's era to track people. Local police andfederal agencies can and do monitor activists on social media. But the advancesin technology also mean it's a lot easier to capture and broadcast socialmovements in real time if law enforcement crosses the line at a protest.Bystanders can post the cell phone video to social media in seconds. It can beon the national news that very evening. These days, it's hard to fathom beingthe only one in the room or in the crowd with a camera, the only one takingpictures, the only one recording history.
MARC: I consider Ernie Weathers a civil rights hero.
WES: Again, reporter Marc Perrusquia.
MARC: But he was complicated and his times werecomplicated. And what we see in this revelation is the warts that were neverpainted on the official portrait, which are helpful in understanding thisperiod and all this hurtful, oppressive, intrusive work that the government wasdoing and spying on American citizens.
WES: For Mark, this has always been, first andforemost a story of government overreach.
MARC: But, you know, if you're going to tell a storylike that, there is going to be some pain. There is. I mean, there's just noway of getting around it. And it's kind of painting a portrait as it really isand not just glossing it. You know, we all have shortcomings. We all havefailures. And and this was his I mean, it really it was. And I just think thatthe larger story trumps the the pain and the, you know, the inconvenience of itall.
ROZ WITHERS: So we find ourselves trying to helppeople to understand....
WES: Roz Withers and I walk down Beale Street. It'sthe middle of the day, but music is pouring out from restaurants and bars.
ROZ WITHERS: When you look at the magnitude in thecontent of what he had....
WES: She's taking me to the archives where most ofher father's work now lives. Just about a block up the street from the Withersmuseum.
ROZ WITHERS: Okay. This is the archive of Ernest Withers,and I'd like for you to get a pencil out. And I want you to count everythingyou see, no I'm kidding.
WES: I'm staring at row after row of tall metalcabinets.
ROZ WITHERS: Okay. These are his original cabinets.
WES: Oh, wow. So what material? What is this made of?
ROZ WITHERS: These were all, this is kind of like atin.
ROZ WITHERS: Yeah, It's really beautiful stuff.That's why we want.
WES: Gorgeous gold with these blue letters.
ROZ WITHERS: Yeah.
WES: Inside the drawers are the original negatives ofphotos that Ernest took. From these original masters, Roz is building a digitalarchive. She spent more than four years on the project, and she's not done. Hergoal is to make all of her father's photographs accessible to anyone, anywhere.But first, she had to organize the work.
ROZ WITHERS: Okay, so let me explain. These are thenegatives. Okay. And this is a typical envelope. And what a typical envelopelooks like. What year is that?
ROZ WITHERS: Envelope. What's inside?
WES: A negative.
ROZ WITHERS: And there's negatives throughout everyenvelope. The beautiful, beautiful thing that my father did is that he putsubject matter and date on most of his material. So what does that look like interms of--feel that one.
WES: Woah there's a ton in there. So is that a wholeset of negatives maybe?
ROZ WITHERS: Yes. Okay.
WES: That's from Amy Church, Reverend Johnson. 1977.Yeah. And so it's very specific.
ROZ WITHERS: Exactly. So this is, here, we can godown here, same thing. And go down here. Same thing over here. Same thing overhere.
WES: Every drawer is a different category. Lifestyle,sports, music, politics. Civil rights was the first category that they preservedand digitized. It's a huge project. Beyond the cabinets, there are two closetsfilled with boxes and boxes of negatives.
ROZ WITHERS: Now, what's interesting about civilrights...
WES: For Roz, her father's legacy is in every one ofhis photos. And preserving his work isn't just a labor of love. It's essential.
WES: Why do you think this process is so important?
ROZ WITHERS: It's our history. It's our historybecause we are told we didn't exist or we're told that our history is notsubstantial because there is no record. Yes, it is. We have record. We have ourhistory right here. And it should be inschools. It should be a part of the education process. That's why this isimportant.
WES: And these photos, not just the civil rights orthe sports, but the weddings, the funerals, the you know, the family photosprovide a visual history of--
ROZ WITHERS: Who we are. So that's why this isimportant.
WES: Later that night, I met up with some friends inMemphis for dinner and we ended up discussing this project. They each wanted toknow if I believe that Ernest had really been a prolific informant and if so,how that should complicate their view of his legacy. One thing is clear, I toldthem, Ernest had definitely been giving information to the FBI. But there's acaveat. It's hard to superimpose the values and the ethics of today on therealities that would have been facing him a black man in the South in the1960s. As for his legacy and that of his work, I'll give Ernest the highestcompliment a journalist can receive. His work speaks for itself. Before I leftMemphis, I gave Roz Weathers my address and my credit card number. I hadpurchased six prints of Ernest photos, all of which now hang in my house. Therewas the photo of the black girls preparing to desegregate the schools in LittleRock, Arkansas, and the one of Medgar Evers' wife and children, crying at his funeral. I bought a photo of theactivist Dick Gregory tying his boots to join the March Against Fear in supportof James Meredith and one of Martin Luther King sitting at the front of thefirst desegregated bus in Montgomery. Another shows reporters riding along theparade route on the anniversary of King's assassination. And then, of course, Ibought that photo. Ernest's most enduring work in which the striking sanitationworkers fan out across the street in Memphis. They hold that their signs, eachof them declaring, I Am a Man.
WES: This season of Unfinished is aco-production of Stitcher and Scripps. Our senior producer is Roy Hurst. Theeditor is Tracy Samuelson. Our show was written by Ellen Weiss. Executiveproducers are Kameel Stanley and Ellen Weiss. Our music is composed by Edward“Tex” Miller. Mixing is by Casey Holford. Special thanks to reporter and authorMarc Perrusquia for sharing documents, sources, and his years of work on thisstory. Marc is the author of the book A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used aFamous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement. He’s currentlythe director at the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University ofMemphis.
Thanks also to the WGBH archives. We had productionhelp from Mckenna Smith and Suzanne Reburn. Our FBI documents were brought tolife by actor Corey Landis. Fact checking was by Kelvin Bias. Stitcher’s VicePresident of Content is Peter Clowney. If you like the show and believe in thiskind of storytelling, please give us a five star review on Apple Podcasts.It’ll help more people discover Unfinished. I’m Wesley Lowery, thanksfor listening.