Unfinished: Ernie's Secret

Episode 4: Fayette County

WES: Previously on Ernie Secret. 


BETTY: 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. 


ROZ: 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? 




BETTY: I guess we were in a field when a rooster was crying. Whatever time it was, just break a day. You know, we had to get up and we had to go. 


WES: It was fall 1960, and it was time to pick cotton. In Fayette County, Tennessee, everything revolved around cotton season--even school. Kids went to class in the summer so they could pick cotton in the fall. 


BETTY You know, once you get used to it, it was the cotton would be so fluffy, and pretty at times it was just like a way of life. So, you just kind of like look forward to being out of school to do those things, you know, cause you could play in the field. 


WES: The Pucketts were sharecroppers, like pretty much every other black family in Fayette County, the land that they farmed on belonged to someone else. And no matter how hard they worked, somehow they were always hiding themselves still in debt to the white landowner. 


BETTY: And you almost broke even, so every year it was like you had to just give it all away. It was like that. We were just working for nothing. 


WES: Sadie says her parents were go getters. Despite the challenges facing black farmers at the time, they managed to cobble together a pretty solid life. They had cows, pigs, a tractor. They were doing about as well as any sharecropper could. Until 1960, when Sadie's father, James Puckett, registered to vote. 


BETTY: When he went down to register to vote, they immediately told him to move. So we had to move. 


WES: The white family, whose land the Pucketts worked on, demanded that they get out. They evicted them in the middle of a bitter cold December. The family had to leave their home so quickly that they were forced to give everything away. 


DAPHNE: There was a list, it’s called The Blacklist. 


WES: This is Daphne Mcferran. Her parents, John and Viola, helped lead the campaign to register black voters in Fayette County. 


DAPHNE: And this list was compiled of those who had registered to vote and an “A” was placed beside the name of those who were deemed agitators. 


WES: A list with the name of every black person who had registered to vote in Fayette County. It was sent from business to business. And if your name was on that list, you couldn't get groceries or gas or a bank loan. Initially the list was a secret, but then a cleaning woman noticed that every time that a black person came into the doctor's office where she worked, the doctor would look up at the ceiling. 


DAPHNE: And so eventually she looked up at the ceiling and saw The Blacklist.


WES: So she went to Daphne's father and she told them what she had found. She knew that he would know what to do. 


DAPHNE: So this cleaning lady who had everything to lose, agreed to go back into the doctor's office after they closed and remove the blacklist.


WES: So John McFerrin took that list and he drove to Memphis to make a photocopy. 


DAPHNE: And they drove the list back to be accountable for the office opened and put the list back up in the doctor's office. 


WES: That Blacklist was published in Ebony magazine, alerting the rest of America to the way that these black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had been systemically targeted, the way they'd been punished simply for wanting to vote. But the white business owners weren't the only people in Fayette County who were keeping a list. Ernest Withers and Bill Lawrence were there, too, and their lists had names, dates, pictures and details. Daphne's parents knew they were on the blacklist. But they never knew that they were also on Ernest’s list. This is Unfinished: Ernie secret. I'm Wesley Lowery. 





WES: When we think about movements, it's often the big, crucial moments that come to mind, the ones that gained national attention. But in reality, movements are comprised of a constellation of data points. Think about the current movement against police violence. Most of us know the most major protests: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Philando Castile and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville. But there have been hundreds, even thousands of local protests, often about cases that never break into the national consciousness. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was like that, too. We know about Montgomery, about Selma, about the March on Washington. But throughout the country, black men and women were taking to the streets to demand justice in their own smaller, more localized campaigns. And just because those campaigns are less well-known, it doesn't mean that they were any less important. 


Among them was the movement in Fayette County, Tennessee, a rural stretch of the state just east of Memphis. The first thing to know about Fayette County was that it was majority black in the late fifties. Black residents made up three quarters of the population. In neighboring Haywood County, it was 62%. These two counties were the only two majority black counties in Tennessee in 1959. But even so, the economic and political power was all white. 



Only a handful of black residents had ever voted in Fayette County. In Haywood, no black citizens were registered. But that began to change in 1959, when a 78-year-old Black farmer named Burton Dodson was convicted of murder. Dodson had gotten into a fight with a white man. That man later showed up at Dodson's farmhouse with a band of white men who surrounded him and demanded he surrender. A gun battle broke out, and as Dodson fled into the woods, one of his shots hit and killed one of the white men. To the black residents, Dodson's actions seemed more than reasonable. 


DAPHNE: The white mob, in the opinion of the black community, went out to Lynch Burton Dodson not to arrest him. 


WES: Here's Daphne McFerrin.


DAPHNE: In 1959, Burton Dodson was found in another state and extradited back to stand trial for the murder of Olin Burrow, who was the white deputy who was killed. 


WES: Daphne's father John was in the courtroom. 


DAPHNE: During the trial, they learned that there were so few African-Americans registered to vote in Fayette County, that Dodson would not be tried by a jury of his peers that included African-Americans. 


WES: An all-white jury convicted Burton Dodson of murder. The black residents of Fayette County were outraged. And so John and Viola Mcferran helped start the voter registration campaign, reasoning that more registered Black voters would mean fewer all white juries and a better chance that Black residents would receive fair trials. But the push to register Black voters threatened to fundamentally alter the county's power structure, and that was something that the white minority was determined to prevent. Daphne Mcferran produced an oral history of Fayette County. This is her mother, Viola. 


VIOLA: Many times the registration office was moved without any notification, and Afro-Americans would continue to try to find the registration officer in the courthouse. 


WES: As black sharecroppers began registering to vote. The backlash from white landowners was swift. Early and Mary Williams were the first black family to be evicted. 


MARY WILLIAMS: I remember so well the first night that we moved to Tent City. The ground was just really frozen real hard. 


EARLY WILLIAMS: Me and her and the four kids, we lived in that tent. We cooked in that tent. We slept in that tent. For 6, 10 months. 


WES: “We lived in that tent. We cooked in that tent.” By the end of December, dozens of evicted families were living in canvas tents with no water, no floors. The encampment became known as Tent City. The Black newspaper in town called the photographer who they knew to help spread the story. They called Ernest Withers. 


DAPHNE: James Estes published a paper called The Times Herald, primarily for the African-American community, brought out Ernest Withers to capture life on the farms with these people living in tents. 


WES: In the tent city, you could see the tenacity of the black sharecroppers in the face of the cruelty from the white landowners. Daphne says that that's what Ernest was able to capture in his photos. Photos like the one she describes here. 


DAPHNE: You see these, It's like a lot of children. It must be at least 12 people in the photograph standing outside this one tent who had been evicted from a white farm because someone in their family registered to vote. And the way it happened; a lot of these families had been on these white farms for generations. So, when a person in the family voted, they evicted the whole family, which included generations. 


WES: These pictures are powerful, exactly what James Estes wanted and needed when he hired Ernest. Like many black journalists of his time, Estes was more than just a newspaper publisher. He was also the lawyer who had represented Burton Dodson. He was part of the movement. 


DAPHNE: So James Estes in this sense, was very media savvy. He understood the visual power of photographs. 


WES: And so essentially, it was this idea that if people outside of the area could see themselves with their own eyes, the evictions, that that would move people and prompt some change. 


DAPHNE: So he understood the power of photographs and the power of the press and the power of pressure. 


WES: Soon, the tent city struggle was making national news. 


JFK: Afternoon. You see. I have several announcements to make first. 


WES: On January 25th, 1961, John F. Kennedy held the first ever live televised presidential news conference.


JFK: I’ve not heard officially of any proposal by Mr. Khrushchev to come to the United States…


WES: Kennedy had been in office for just five days, and there was a lot of stuff on his mind. The Soviet Union, a test ban treaty, food aid to Congo. And then, a reporter stood up and asked about the tent city in Fayette County, Tennessee. Listen closely, It's a little hard to hear. 


JFK: Yes ma’am.


REPORTER: Does your administration plan to take any steps to solve the problem in Fayette County, Tennessee? Where tenant farmer have been evicted from their homes because they voted last November, and must now live in tents?


WES: “Mr. President, do you and your administration plan to take any steps to solve the problems in Fayette County, Tennessee? Tenant farmers have been evicted from their homes because they voted last November.” President Kennedy stumbled on his answer. 


JFK: We are. the congress, of course, enacted legislation which placed very clear responsibility on the executive branch to protect the right of voting. 


WES: He said that he was very interested in making sure that everyone had the right to vote and that his administration would pursue that right ,quote, “with all vigor.” What the new president might not have known was that the Justice Department, the one that he was now in charge of, was already on the case. Despite the stonewalling and the evictions. A few hundred Black residents had registered to vote in the summer of 1959, but when they showed up to vote in the county primary elections that August, they were turned away. The local Democratic Party had circulated the letter instructing, quote, “If any Negroes should ask to vote in your district, they are to be informed that this is a white Democratic primary and not a general election.” But the Justice Department was watching. First, the feds filed a lawsuit to stop the white residents from obstructing their Black neighbors voting rights. And then they filed another suit, this one aimed at stopping the evictions. And that's when in late 1960, FBI Special Agent Bill Lawrence from the Memphis field office got in his car and drove east to Fayette County. 


DAPHNE: FBI agents eventually went out to interview farmers and get affidavits about deprivation of voting rights. 


WES: This is Daphne Mcferran again. 


DAPHNE: So it was clear that it was an organized effort among whites in Fayette County to retaliate against African-Americans who register to vote. Additionally, there were a few whites who did not go along with this, who thought what the white community was doing was wrong. However, they too were retaliated against and driven out of business. 


WES: Bill Lawrence was there to document the evictions and the obstruction. Pretty much the same reasons that Ernest was there. 


DAPHNE: So Ernest Withers is on the ground from the start with respect to Tent City. He even told me himself--I think this is hubris but anyway--he said himself, he says, ‘Oh, that that tent city, the Fayette County movement would have never taken off the ground if they had not taken those original photos.’ It was amusing. 


WES: Does he have a point at all? I mean, how important were the photographs? 


DAPHNE: It was absolutely important that the photographs existed. But there would have been no movement had there not been any activists who went to the polls and there'd be nothing to photograph. 


WES: He is part of the wheel, but he's not the whole thing. 


DAPHNE: He's a, he is a spoke in the wheel, and an important spoke because if you break some of the spokes, the wheel will wobble. 


WES: Let's stay with that metaphor for a minute. The efforts for voting rights, for justice, for equality. They’re a wheel. And the various groups that are working to advance the cause make up the different spokes. There are the local activists, the media, journalists like Ernest, the Department of Justice. And it takes all of them for the wheel to move forward. Without one, the whole thing begins to wobble. And so what happens if some of those spokes begin working against the others, turning the other way? That's after the break. 




WES: After the tent city in Fayette County gained national attention, help began pouring in from across the country. Canned food, clothing, money and people. People like James Foreman. 


WES: All right. So, Dinky we're just going to jump right in. 


DINKY: Okay. 


WES: We're going to start nice and easy. Can you tell me who you are? 


DINKY: Yes, I am Dinky Romilly. I was married to Jim Foreman for several years. Yeah, I'm a sort of lifelong activist. I would describe myself. 


WES: Now, what can you tell me about Jim Forman? Who? Who was he? 


DINKY: So Jim Forman was a remarkable person. He was considerably older than most of the most of us in SNICC or were either in college or just post-college. 


WES: You may have heard of James Forman. He was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and was one of the most crucial activists during the civil rights movement. He died in 2005. Forman had been living in Chicago and working as a public-school teacher in the late 1950s when he decided to travel south. He describes it here in an interview in 2001. 


JAMES FOREMAN: And why the South? Because there the segregation was most blatant, we had a denial of the right to vote. People couldn't register to vote. You had segregated facilities. Those things had to be broken down. 


WES: Forman's activism can be traced to a traumatic event a few years earlier. He'd been living in Los Angeles, taking classes at the University of Southern California. And one night, as he was leaving the library, a police car pulled up in front of him. The officers told him he fit the description of a suspect. They beat him and they arrested him. 


DINKY: He got actually thrown into a mental facility and his family didn't know where he was for almost a year. It took his mother to come and find him, during which time he was subjected to all kinds of pharmaceutical and shock therapy treatments. It was a devastating experience. 


WES: Forman's first forays into the movement were as a journalist sending dispatches to the Chicago Defender, which at the time was the most powerful black newspaper in the country. Among the places he traveled for the paper was Little Rock to cover the ongoing school desegregation fight in 1958. Foreman wasn't particularly well known, but some of the people he traveled with were already on the FBI's radar, noted as communist sympathizers. Federal agents were monitoring them, keeping notes on who they met with. And so before long, James Foreman became a person of concern. Two years later, Ernest Withers and James Foreman were back in the same place. And once again, Ernest was telling the FBI about Foreman, this time as a paid informant. At the same time that he was documenting the sharecroppers in the tent city, Ernest was taking photos of Foreman and turning them in to his handler, Bill Lawrence. Here's a memo dated December 8th, 1961, and written by Agent Lawrence. 


ACTOR AS LAWRENCE: On 11/30/6,  Ernest Columbus Withers Jr, PCI, who has furnished reliable information in the past orally, advised the writer as follows: Withers sold writer at $1 each seven copies of a full length photo depicting James Rufus Foreman, a.k.a. Foreman. These photos were taken by Withers in the Tent City. Copies will be sent to Chicago, Charlotte and the Bureau since it appears Foreman is a racial agitator who has a propensity for appearing on the scene of many racial controversies. 


WES: Reading the FBI files, it's clear that so much of what the FBI knew about the tent city and what it knew about James Forman was coming from Ernest Withers. After one meeting, Lawrence writes that Ernest, quote, “could not help but conclude that Forman had some ulterior motive.” Otherwise, he would not have come all the way from Chicago, Illinois to Fayette County. James Foreman saw his mission as chronicling the stories of the people in the tent city and helping to funnel money and food and supplies to the evicted sharecroppers. This is Daphne McFerrin. 


DAPHNE: What my parents appreciated was the outside knowledge people like James Foreman brought in, the organizing skills that the ability to understand how to work with the press. 


WES: But the FBI files paint Foreman's action in a much more sinister light. There's a 12-page report dated September 6th, 1961, and it's all about Foreman. All of it is sourced to Ernest Withers. 


ACTOR AS LAWRENCE To director FBI ,subject James Rufus Forman, a.k.a. James Forman. Racial Matters. 


WES: According to the report, Ernest called Foreman, quote, “an enigma” who would constantly travel to, quote, “trouble spots.” Ernest, the report says…


ACTOR AS LAWRENCE: …had gathered from personal observations coupled with discussions with Negro leaders in Fayette County, Tennessee, that James Foreman or Foreman of Chicago, Illinois, who had so prominently injected himself into the Negro tent city movement and subsequent distribution of relief to alleged displaced Negroes in tent city was hoodwinking John Mcferran of the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League and telling McFerrin what to do. 


WES: As we consider these FBI files and the information that they attribute to Ernest, I think it's important to remember that Ernest didn't actually write these reports himself. These aren't his words. These reports were written by Bill Lawrence. Ernest’s FBI handler. Take this report. It seems really unlikely that Ernest, a black civil rights photographer from the South, would have questioned the legitimacy of the tent city and called its residents, quote, “allegedly displaced” the way that the report does. All of this creates a complication in using these FBI files to understand what Ernest told the FBI. When we read these files. how do we know where Ernest’s information ends and where Bill Lawrence, his words, his biases, his agendas begin? Just because these documents state that Ernest told the FBI something, does that mean that he actually did? And if Ernest was alive today, might he dispute these files accurately reflect what he told the FBI? This is something that reporter Mark Persky and I talked about. 


WES: When you read these reports, the reports themselves are written by Bill Lawrence. These aren't handwritten notes from Withers, for example. These aren't necessarily in direct quotes, but they're relaying what a source said X, Y and Z. How do you think about the actual line by line accuracy? Sure. This report written by Lawrence says that Withers said this thing. But how do you evaluate, how do you think through these documents and the biases that may be baked into them by the writer?


MARC PERRUSQUIA: Yeah, I mean, that's an excellent point. I mean, there's no doubt that, you know, Bill Lawrence came from a certain orientation. You know, he was a white conservative Baptist, grew up in Ohio. You know, he was a true believer, I think, in the FBI cause, anti-communist. And so that colors the way he writes these reports. I mean, even you look at his sentences, I mean, the guy was, I think in one level, a very brilliant individual. From what I know, how he put his reports together, you know, he was basically dictating them. And when you read his sentences, they’re these long almost run on, but yet grammatically correct artful sentences. He was a smart guy. But yeah, his views were coloring what he was hearing. And there are certain words, phrases that he repeats over time that, you know, that's you know, that's Bill Lawrence's interpretation of what, you know, Ernest Withers or whoever is telling them. And when you think about it, too, I mean, they were paying Ernest. They were paying for the information. And they wanted it to be dependable and on the things that mattered. I mean, they wouldn’t have kept paying him if they if they didn't feel they were getting accurate information. So, I mean, it is you're right. I mean, you've got to look at this stuff skeptically to a point, but I don't think you can just dismiss them out of hand. 




WES: Two things can be true. These reports very likely put words in Ernest’s mouth. Who knows if he literally called James Foreman an enigma, for example. But it's not hard to imagine that they accurately reflect the types of information that Ernest was passing along. What's certainly clear is that the FBI was using these files to build a narrative. In this case, the narrative that James Foreman was trouble, an agitator, a radical. And to be fair, the FBI wasn't wrong about that. 


WES: It seems from the FBI files that the FBI in Memphis was really concerned about Jim. They were convinced he was one of the communist outside agitators, that he was the type of person they had to be watching. Does that surprise you? 


DINKY: No, they were right. 


WES This is Dinky Romley, James Foreman's ex-wife. 


DINKY: He well, he wasn't from there. And he was he was very left politically, very well educated in international communist or Marxist-Leninist, Maoist thought. And so he was definitely going to be a threat to the power structure. That was what he wanted to be. 


WES: Now, all of that, though, is ostensibly constitutionally protected behavior. He's allowed. Right. He's allowed to enjoy reading Mao. Right. You know, the that in terms of what he was…


DINKY: Well tell that to the leaders of the Communist Party who had to go underground for years and then serve time in jail when it was actually illegal in this country to be a communist. Did you know that? You need to check up on a little bit on your history to find out what really has happened in this country. You can say all kinds of things are theoretically constitutional, but those issues are pushed. Those boundaries are pushed on both sides all the time. That's what democracy is supposed to be, actually. 


WES: It's remarkable to think about how much our ideas around speech and political thought have shifted and are still shifting. Yes, there are still debates raging about what ideologies and beliefs are acceptable and mainstream and which ones are not. But in Foreman's day, really not that long ago, simply holding leftist beliefs and showing up to some protest activities explicitly protected by the Constitution were enough for the FBI to justify spying on him and thousands of others for years. James Foreman eventually left Fayette County, but he continued to give his time and attention to the movement. He'd go on to be a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, which mobilized young civil rights activists across the South. 





WES: To what extent was he aware of the FBI or the federal government surveilling him or taking notes on him? Was he worried about surveillance? 


DINKY: What I can say is that we assumed that we were being surveilled. It was just our assumption that the government would be surveilling us in one shape or another, 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 do anything to support you in your legal efforts to make the local police forces follow the law. 


WES: Essentially, they were, you all knew they were watching you all taking notes. And by virtue of that, they were seeing civil rights violations and the ways you all were being treated. But you knew you couldn't count on the FBI to step in and do anything about that. 


DINKY: Yeah, we used to call them. To tell them to come. 


WES: What, you all would call the FBI yourself?


DINKY: Yes. You list the times when we were under assault by official police bodies and somebody would notify the Justice Department, somebody would call down to Washington. It was kind of performance. We didn't really expect them to do anything to help us, but we wanted it to be on record. 


WES: What Dinky is saying is that even if the federal government was on the side of voting rights and that the FBI was supposedly in Fayette County to help enforce the law, it didn't feel that way. But whether or not the federal government would protect them, droves of young people would soon heed the call pouring into the streets of cities across the south. They were young, idealistic, both black and white from college campuses, synagogues, churches ready to confront American racism and segregation head on. Thousands of people demanding civil rights. And that meant thousands of new people landing on Bill Lawrence's list in Ernest Withers’ viewfinder and in the FBI files with “A” for agitator scrawled next to their name. 


INTERVIEWEE: I was too young and dumb to be scared and and too fired up. I remember going back to my high school teacher before I went. He just shook his head and he said, ‘Well, be careful because you could get yourself killed and some idiot would write a folk song about you. And we don't want that.’


WES: That's next time on Unfinished: Ernie Secret. 




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.