Unfinished: Ernie's Secret

Episode 3: Two Daughters

WES It's four months before Christmas, 1967, and the Lawrence family is arranging themselves in the living room of their Memphis home. Dad settles into the upholstered easy chair. 


BETTY LAWRENCE My father is sitting in that chair. It was the same chair that he sat in every night to write up his notes into a report. 


WES Mom stands behind him, and daughters Betty and Nancy flank their father. Everyone is dressed for the occasion. Dark suits and dresses. Mom's even wearing a double strand of pearls around her neck. 


BETTY LAWRENCE That's me on the right. My sister on the left, on the arms of the chair. And my mother standing behind my father. Margaret Lawrence. Nancy Lawrence. Betty Lawrence. Bill Lawrence. 


WES They all stare out across the living room to where a camera is perched atop a tripod behind it. The photographer, Ernest Withers. 


BETTY LAWRENCE He was on the other side of the living room, which was a huge, tall, dignified black man with a camera on a stand. 


WES Look this way. Move a little closer. Smile. 


BETTY LAWRENCE He took that picture and Daddy was real grateful. And we got the prints that we sent out to the relatives that Christmas. 


WES The way Betty Lawrence puts it, Ernest was her daddy's black photographer friend. This was the first and only time she'd ever meet him. 


BETTY LAWRENCE But I had heard of Ernest, I should say, for years over the dinner table, that he would tell funny anecdotes about various people that he had talked to that day. You know, an old Ernest said this and it was funny. So I felt like Ernest was somewhat a known quantity. 


WES Bill Lawrence and Ernest Withers had a lot in common. They were roughly the same age. Both respected professionals and family men, both of them well known around Memphis. And by the time Ernest came to the Lawrence house to take that family photo, he and Bill had known each other for several years. 


BETTY LAWRENCE I knew that he and Daddy were friends. I still feel that way. You don't. You don't spend Christmas cards ten years after you've seen a person if they're not your friend. 


WES Maybe the two men were friends. But maybe not. The relationship between them was complicated. It was messy. And it definitely wasn't what it seemed to Betty or to anyone else at the time. This is unfinished or Ernie secret. I'm Wesley Lowery. By the time of the 1967 Christmas portrait, Ernest Withers had taken hundreds of photos for Bill Lawrence, and the two men had had countless conversations. But they weren't family photos. It wasn't small talk. Bill was also known as Special Agent William H. Lawrence, the FBI's top official in Memphis. He was in charge of the city's domestic intelligence operation chasing, communist, ordering, spying and four years running paid informant Ernest Withers. Our question today is how did Bill and Ernest first join forces? Why did Ernest sign up to help the FBI to help it spy on a movement that he'd done so much to elevate? And what was it about these two men, about this moment in history that made their relationship possible and last for so long? The truth is, we may never really know. Both of the men are dead. Neither of them can speak for themselves. But we are able to do the next best thing. We spoke to their daughters, Rosalyn Withers and Betty Lawrence. Two daughters who can help bring us as close as we can get to the minds of the two men at the center of our story. Here's Ross. 


ROZ WITHERS I've learned about who I am. I've learned about who we are. I've learned so much through the eyes and the lens of Ernest Withers. 


WES And Betty on her dad. 


BETTY LAWRENCE Bill, you know, his honesty and his integrity and his veracity. That's what he was. 


WES In order to understand what brought Ernest and Bill together, we have to first understand where these two men came from. 


NEWS One of the best known buildings in Washington, DC is the Department of Justice. 


WES And before we can begin the story of Bill Lawrence, we have to tell the story of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover, of course, is the legendary FBI director who spent five decades leading the agency and obsessively wielding its power in pursuit of so-called racial agitators and communists. 


NEWS On the shoulders of John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI since 1924. Heavy responsibilities. 


WES Hoover got to start the agency in 1919 when he was just 24, and he was put in charge of running the, quote, radical division. Its purpose was to sniff out so-called radical groups and subversives. That meant labor activist, anarchist, communist and left wing publications. Hoover was really good at this. In just his first year, the radical division amassed more than 200,000 files. And it was an experience that would forever shape Hoover, and it would shape the way Hoover ran as FBI. One of his earliest targets was Marcus Garvey, the influential Jamaican journalist and activist. It was among the first times that Hoover would target someone solely for their politics. 


MARCUS GARVEY Fellow citizens of Africa. I briefly enabled the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League of the World. You may ask, What organization is that? 


WES In the 1920s, Garvey was in the vanguard of black activism. He argued that white society would never accept black Americans as their equals. 


MARCUS GARVEY Here's only to inform you that the Universal Living Improvement Association is an organization that seeks to unite into one solid body the 400 million people of the world. 


WES How could America call itself a democracy? Garvey questioned when millions of its black citizens remain so oppressed. This was just the kind of thinking and Garvey was just the kind of person that Hoover feared and hated. He was a charismatic black leader, leveling damning critiques of the country. He was mobilizing black Americans, a potential black messiah. And so whoever committed to ruining Marcus Garvey, he spied on him. He gathered damaging personal information. He sabotaged his businesses. It was tools like these that Hoover would employ again and again throughout his law enforcement career. Eventually, Garvey was deported, labeled a, quote, undesirable alien and sent back to Jamaica. But for all of its harassment of activists like Marcus Garvey, Hoover's FBI was equally skilled at something else public relations. They crafted the squeaky clean image that many people still think of black suits and buzz cuts. The G-men. 


FBI VIDEO The special agent, must be a good marksman and have the courage to shoot it out with the most venomous of public enemies. 


WES It was an image meant to attract recruits like Bill Lawrence, who was an 18 year old college kid when he first signed up for the bureau. 


BETTY LAWRENCE I think the bureau was a fairly, I must say, romantic, but it was the Eliot Ness business. It was, you know, catch the bad guys. It was as clear as that. He felt like it could be a valuable service. 


WES Bill did a few stints at FBI offices around the country in 1945. He transferred to Memphis, the city where he would make his name. 


BETTY LAWRENCE Of course, that was just at the beginning of the Cold War kind of and communist. You know, that was the big threat and that was what they were going to not let our institutions all get taken over by and they were going to get subversives out. And that is really what they worked on at that time. 


WES But if you're going to get the subversives out, you first got to figure out who they are. In the years that followed the Second World War, subversives meant communist. 


FBI VIDEO In recognizing a communist physical appearance counts for nothing. If a person consistently reads and advocates the views expressed in a communist publication, he may be a communist. If a person supports organizations which reflect communist teachings or organizations labeled Communist by the Department of Justice, she may be a communist. 


BETTY LAWRENCE I don't think that my father thought there were communists around every corner. I think he thought that there could be communists around most any corner. And I think he saw his job at figuring out which corners to keep track of and which he didn't need to worry about. 


WES In 1954, Bill Lawrence got his big break on one of those street corners. He arrested Junius Scales, a leader of the Communist Party of the United States who had gone into hiding in Memphis. Betty was five years old at the time. 


BETTY LAWRENCE He went up and put his hand on his shoulder and said, I'm Bill Lawrence of the FBI and you're under arrest. And that was how he effected the arrest right there at the bus stop. So, yeah, that was a good claim to fame. 


WES Skills was the only American to ever be jailed simply for being a member of the Communist Party. A legal battle that went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And so his arrest was a big deal in the FBI, so much so that it earned Bill Lawrence a personal letter from J. Edgar Hoover. 


BETTY LAWRENCE Dear Mr. Lawrence, I have noted with much satisfaction your fine participation in the apprehension of Junius Irving Scales, and I wish to take this means to express my appreciation to you. The manner in which you developed information, establishing the whereabouts of scales, making possible. His apprehension is certainly worthy of special recognition. It is a pleasure to commend you. Sincerely yours, J. Edgar Hoover, who. 


WES Was your father proud of that letter? 


BETTY LAWRENCE Yeah. I mean, he saved it. Yeah, he was proud. He was proud of Hoover. You know, Hoover had been its uncles or its great uncle's next door neighbor in Oklahoma back in the day. So I think he was prepared to like Hoover because of that. But also, it was Hoover's FBI that he joined. 


WES An even time with his girls. Could be used for work. 


BETTY LAWRENCE After supper on summer evenings. That's the way I remember it. He'd get my sister and I when we were still pretty little, and he'd say, You want to go buy a house? And we thought, you know, let's go buy a house. That sounds like fun. And all we do would be to drive by. And he would see what cars were parked in front of the house and who was attending a meeting that he knew would take place that evening. But it was just my father in his big black Chevy with his two little girls go and slowly pass that house. He was doing surveillance. We didn't realize for years that that's what go by house met. 


WES At the end of the day, Bill Lawrence would sit in his upholstered chair, the same one he sat in for that family photo. He'd take all his notes, all the information he'd gathered, and he'd put it all into a report. 


BETTY LAWRENCE Write them on pads of government paper. And then he would go to the office at about 6:00 in the morning and dictate the report. You know, it would all be done. He could he could face whatever he was going to learn the next day. And that's what he did. He did it five days a week. 


WES Hunting communist, five days a week. A personal letter from Director Hoover on his wall. A wife, two healthy daughters, a nice home. By the mid 1950s. Bill Lawrence was living the dream. And actually, so was Ernest. That's after the break. Ernest Withers and Bill Lawrence arrived in Memphis just a year apart in 1945. Bill came to a new city for a new job. But for Ernest, Memphis was home. It's where he grew up, where his family had lived for generations. And in 1946, he was returning back from war. In the Army, he had learned photography. And he learned that he could make money by charging his fellow soldiers $0.02 per photo. And who wouldn't want a photo good enough to send home to their wife or girlfriend? 


ROZ WITHERS But what was significant about my father is that he would be collecting money for everything he sold. Roll it up. Put it in one of those tin containers that the film came in. It shipped my mom all these tins of cans. 


WES And so he's overseas, taking photos of all the enlisted men and then sending back these. There's rolls and rolls of money. 


ROZ WITHERS For my mom and her children. Yes. 


WES By that point, there were three children in the Withers family and five more were coming. Ross was the youngest, the only girl. 


ROZ WITHERS Of course, I was his favorite So. 


WES So you're a biased source? 


ROZ WITHERS Yes. Seven. Seven brothers I was raised with. And being the only girl in the last of Dorothy and Ernest Withers. It meant a lot. 


WES When Ernest got back from the military, his father had wanted him to be a postman, just like he had been. 


ROZ WITHERS He said no. He didn't want to be a postman. He wanted to be a photographer. 


WES Ernest opened his first studio, but with so many mouths to feed, he needed another job. So he tried something very different in 1948. He and eight others became the first black police officers in Memphis history. 


ROZ WITHERS They felt that they needed black policemen in the black communities because the communities of African-Americans were growing. The white officers didn't really want to police our areas, so they had agree politically that it was necessary to begin to hire black policemen so that they could police our areas. 


WES Now, what was it like to be one of the early black policemen? 


ROZ WITHERS That I think was was something not so easy for my father because he was so popular. There were things that were taking place that they had undercover cops to do. And because my father was so well known, it got to be a challenge for him to do any undercover work. So he attributes that to agitating his boss to them, not having a good relationship because of his popularity and which led to him, you know, kind of leaving the force. 


WES It was a little more complicated than that. Just a few years after joining the force, Ernest was arrested for allegedly skimming profits from a bootlegger. He wasn't charged with anything, but he lost his job and his salary. But his firing, Ross contends, came at least in part because of the animus that Ernest, his bosses, had felt towards him. So Ernest went back to photography and he opened a new studio. Timing, it turns out, is everything, because the battle over desegregation was just about to begin and the black press needed journalists on the front lines. 


ROZ WITHERS And I think having to interact with people as a police officer even helped him in being able to be in the middle of situations because he knew how to get there. You know, he knew how to place himself there without getting in trouble. 


WES Ernest got into places. He got pictures that no one else even dared to try to take. There's the one inside the Emmett Till trial. But then there's this other one in a different courtroom. You see black lawyers on one side and white lawyers on the other. And as you look at it, you find yourself thinking, wait, did Ernest take that photo while sitting at the judge's bench? 


ROZ WITHERS When you look at that and you look at that photograph and you look at the death, that photograph where he captured that photograph, he had to be like right behind the judge. So what kind of relationship or respect that he had in that courtroom in order to be able to capture everybody's face in front of the judge, whom the judge had to trust him to be there? I mean, how many judges, you know, will let you do that? 


WES Very few, yes. Especially not. 


ROZ WITHERS So there was there was he was really a relationship builder. He knew how to have, you know, relationships to get things accomplished. 


WES All of a sudden, Ernest was the go to photographer for the black press, and that's how he ended up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. 


EISENHOWER I have today issued an executive order directing the use of troops under a federal authority to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. 


WES President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the National Guard to escort nine black students into Central High School. The students had already tried and failed twice, but this time Ernest was there to document things. I'll let him pick up the story. He told it to an audience back in 2004. 


ERNESET WITHERS This is the next morning after the Arkansas National Guard had been federalized and the Little Rock nine kids were loaded in the station wagon. 


WES As four of the girls get out of the car and climb the steps to the school door. They're greeted by a hostile white crowd. 


ERNESET WITHERS The young lady they are is gallery walls. Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, which was most provocative. 


WES One of the girls, Minnijean Brown, drops a sheet of paper and bends over in her polka dot dress to pick it up from the pavement. At that very moment, Ernest snaps a picture. It contains a stunning juxtaposition the innocent youth of the black schoolgirls and the insatiable bigotry of the white mob. Things didn't get better in Little Rock a year after those nine kids were escorted into Central High. The governor shut down all of the schools in the state in order to stop black students from attending. EARNEST was sent back to the scene and this time he stopped by the FBI field office. According to FBI documents, on September 28, 1958, Ernest and two colleagues complained to agents that some activists were misrepresenting themselves. They were saying they were press in order to attend news conferences. It's unclear what, if anything, came of that meeting, but it's the first time we have record of EARNEST directly interacting with the FBI. The next known meeting would be two years later. In 1960. 


NEWS Since before the Civil War, there have been Negroes in the South who pressed for equality, the right to take their place among men as their educational standards rose, as their experience with the outside and segregated world increased, the number of those who spoke out for equality also increased membership in the Negro rights organizations. But. Plans were laid to work on. 


WES 41 year old Bill Lawrence got into his Chevy sedan and headed east from Memphis. He passed cornfields and tried to avoid mud holes. He and his partner, Joseph Kearney, were headed to Fayette County. Ernest was already there. He had set up his camera at the edge of a cotton field. It was winter, everything was brown. And he pointed his viewfinder on a family bundled in winter coats, standing outside a canvas tent. 


ERNESET WITHERS That's a family that lived in one of the tents and tent city. One, two, three, four, five children. A wife and a husband. 


WES Many black farmers and their families had been evicted, forced to live in tents simply because they tried to register to vote. Ernest was there to cover the story. Bill and the FBI were supposed to be there supporting the black farmers, enforcing their right to vote. But the records show that they were also spying on activists. In one FBI report dated December 23rd, 1960. There's a photo included in the FBI files from Fayette County. It's a photo of Melvin Dotson, a tenant farmer who ran a local voter registration organization dressed in a Sunday best. Dotson poses with five others outside of a law office. We don't know who wrote the report, but the second paragraph says this photograph was made available to Special Agents William H. Lawrence and Joseph H. Kerney, Jr. By freelance photographer Ernest C Withers. It goes on the list. Ernest Studio Address 319 Beale Street. This is the first photo, at least in the files that we have access to that we know that Ernest supplied to the FBI. We don't know exactly what led Ernest to begin providing photos to the feds or what his early conversations with Bill Lawrence would have looked like. Did the bureau pressure him? Did they threaten him unless he worked with them? Or did Ernest seek them out? Was he eager to share information? Did he consider himself an informant at all or just a journalist who was obtaining information and passing it along to whoever was paying? Or maybe it was something deeper. Do you think with your dad's military background, he would have been sympathetic if Bill Lawrence or some of the FBI came to him and said, no, no, no, no, no, no. We're we're fine with the peaceful folks, but we're just trying to root out the communists. Will you help us? 


ROZ WITHERS You know, that's that would be speculation on my part. 


WES I get why we're. I wouldn't go there. But still. EARNEST motivation is a big frustrating gap in this story. We know that he was an informant, but we don't really know why. It's easy to come up with theories that he needed the cash or that as a former cop and a World War Two veteran, he might have been sympathetic to the fight against communists. Maybe Ernest thought that by cooperating with the FBI, he was protecting the movement. Here's Betty Lawrence again. 


BETTY LAWRENCE The FBI was not seen as the enemy, per se. The FBI was the federal law enforcement that could protect black people in the face of white police or state troopers or sheriffs that weren't going to protect them. 


WES Or as Ross Withers puts it. 


ROZ WITHERS They were the best of the evils. 


WES The FBI was. Yeah. 


ROZ WITHERS They were the best of the evils. 


WES Why was that? 


ROZ WITHERS Because they were they would listen or they would adhere to what their complaints were. And sometimes they were used to step in to minimize just the the evilness of Jim Crow. 


WES Times when the local law enforcement and government couldn't be trusted. You would call the feds. 


ROZ WITHERS Exactly. And they were held to a higher standard of the law. Even though Jim Crow was accepted in southern states, it was not a national enforcement. Hmm. And recognizing that from the FBI standpoint, they would enforce not favorably, but they would enforce sometimes the law to our advantage. 


WES So while a photojournalist or an activist today might say, I'm never talking the FBI knowing now what we know about what the FBI did during the civil rights movement or surveillance at the time, it might have been a different calculation. 


ROZ WITHERS Well, at the time, when you think about what was happening, you know, we didn't even have the right to vote. So who are we to tell the FBI what to do? We're talking not being able to to vote, not being able to go to the zoo five days a week. I mean, think about those times. 


WES Hmm. 


ROZ WITHERS Those were times that we had no authority to have a voice. Our voice came with the struggle. Or there is a voice because of this struggle. 


WES That last point that Roz is making is yet another reason why Ernest might have worked with the FBI. Essentially, it might not have been a choice. Sure, the FBI was a better option than the local police. But the FBI was also incredibly powerful. If it didn't like you, it could use that power to destroy you. Maybe Ernest didn't feel like he could say no. Money, sympathy, pressure. They're all just theories, conjecture. Their attempts to peer inside the brain of a dead man. The truth is, we just don't know. But we're to keep wrestling with this question throughout the series. We do know that one month after Ernest gave those first photos to the FBI at the end of 1960, he and Bill Lawrence were both back in Memphis, and Lawrence was asking Ernest to give him information about the Nation of Islam, the black Muslim group that the bureau saw as a new threat. Here's an actor reading what Lawrence wrote in his files on January 31st, 1961. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE Withers will continue to be on the alert for information regarding the A.I. and will attempt to specifically identify individual followers thereof. 


WES And Ernest did exactly that. He gave the FBI photos of the Nation of Islam members and notes from their meetings. By February, Lawrence was petitioning his bosses back in Washington to put Ernest on the payroll. He wanted to make him an official confidential informant. Here's what he wrote in a memo to his bosses. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE Because of his many contacts in the racial field, plus his indicated willingness to cooperate with the bureau, as attested by his recent furnishing of information. It is recommended that Withers be considered as a PCI. 


WES A PCI, a potential confidential informant. This was the start of Ernest's new double life. Next time on unfinished earnings secret. 


DAPHNE What I can say is that we assumed we were being surveilled and then also surveilling situations in which they should be surveilling and then not doing anything to be of any assistance. Knowing that you couldn't really count on the federal government and its spy agencies to make the local police forces follow the law. 


WES This season of Unfinished is a co-production of Stitcher and Scripps. Our senior producer is Roy Hurst. The editor is Tracey Samuelson. Our show was written by Ellen Weiss. Executive producers are Camille Stanley and Ellen Weiss. Our music is composed by Edward Tex. Miller. Mixing is by Casey Holford. Special thanks to reporter and author Marc Pear Esquire for sharing documents, sources and his years of work on this story. Mark is the author of the book A Spy in Kanan How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks also to the WGBH archives, we had production help from McKenna Smith and Susanne Reber. Our FBI documents were brought to life by actor Corey Landis. Fact checking was by Kelvin Bias. Stitchers, 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.