Unfinished: Ernie's Secret

Episode 5: On the Front Lines

WES Previously on Ernie Secret. 


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


DAPHNE This list was compiled of those who had registered to vote and in a was placed beside the name of those who were deemed agitators. We assumed that we were being surveilled. It was just our assumption that the government would be surveilling us in one shape or another. 


WES 19 year old Terry Brown put on a clean, white sleeveless shirt, pulled her hair back and threw her purse over her shoulder. It was a warm summer morning in 1965. Terry was headed to Memphis with her friend Cash Williams, about an hour west. They were excited. Ernest Withers was going to take their picture. 


TERRY He invited Cash and me to come to his studio for a photograph when we were in Somerville one time and we accepted. 


WES Terry is White, one of dozens of northern college students who'd come to Fayette County, Tennessee, to help register voters. That's where she'd met Cash, a local black teenager who was active in the movement. When the two arrived at EARNEST Studio in Memphis, he asked them to sit next to each other and to look into the camera. 


TERRY Cash has very dark skin and he's got shades on and a T-shirt and one leg crossed and he looks like, awesome, cool, you know, heavy duty. Don't mess with me. I'm this cool dude, and I'm there in my summer clothes kind of staring out like, what? You got a problem with this? 


WES In the photo. Terri and Cash are sitting close. Her arm is resting atop his leg, his arms wrapped around her back. A bit of her bra strap is peeking out on one shoulder. It's intimate. It's daring. It's just the way Ernest probably wanted it when he posed them. And looking at it today. Terri is right. They do look pretty bad ass in that photo. But that's not how people would have seen the picture back in 1965. 


TERRY You might say, oh, my God, her shoulder is seems to be touching his chest and and her arm seems to be leaning on his leg. And they are way close to each other. What was going on? This could either be viewed in 1965 as, yes, we're standing up for integration and for people being with whom they want, or, oh, the roof is falling in on us, these blacks and whites so close to each other. What has happened to the world? It could have been his death or mine. A picture like this. This is no joke. It's in those days. It's something that was beyond inexcusable to set us up like that and send that to the FBI. We're lucky, both of us, that that we weren't killed. It could only have been used for something awful. 


WES In fact, Terry thinks it was used for something awful. 


TERRY Since it was from Ernest Withers, who was a mole for the FBI. We know how it was interpreted by then. It was just more fuel for this racist fire. 


WES This is unfinished. Ernie secret. I'm Wesley Lowery. Over the last few episodes, we've talked about how Ernest Withers became a man with two warring missions. Ernest, the civil rights photographer, and Ernest, the FBI informant. And these two roles, these dueling identities, they would only intensify as the civil rights movement built momentum during the 1960s. EARNEST wasn't content to sit on the sidelines. He thrust himself directly into the action in ways that remain confounding and contradictory. As an informant, EARNEST wasn't just taking photos of public events and passing them along to his handler, Bill Lawrence. He set up photoshoots like the one with Terry Brown and Cash Williams. But even as he became a key source for the feds, EARNEST continued to show up at some of the most dangerous places in the South, playing a hybrid role of photographer and participant, doing work that unquestionably aided the advancement of the movement. To show you what I mean. I need to tell you the story of James Meredith. The University of Mississippi, located in Oxford and better known as Ole Miss, isn't just any college. It has been for most of its history, a living symbol of the antebellum South. The school was run by Confederate generals following the Civil War. Its nickname, Ole Miss, is a reference to the term that enslaved black people were said to have used to address the wives of their white owners. It wasn't until 2015 that the school stopped playing Dixie, the anthem of the Confederate States at its athletic events. More than 100 years after its founding, the student body of Ole Miss was all white. But in 1961, a 27 year old black man named James Meredith was determined to change that. After nine years in the Air Force and a year of schooling at Jackson State, James Meredith applied for admission to Ole Miss at the bottom of his application, he wrote. I sincerely hope that your attitude towards me as a potential member of your student body will not change upon learning that I am not a white applicant. That was wishful thinking. Of course it did. James Meredith application was rejected. He applied two more times and he was rejected twice more, this time with the Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, personally overseeing the rejections. In September 1962, James Meredith found himself sitting in a room with photographer Ernest Withers and a journalist named Larry Still. By this point, the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered Ole Miss to let Meredith enroll, and President Kennedy had SAT scores of federal marshals to the scene. But that didn't matter much to the hundreds of armed white Mississippians who showed up to make sure that Meredith would never make it to class. For now, the two journalists were helping Meredith hide out. 


ERNEST Larry Steele and myself got him and took care of him and then socialized with him the night before he was to be admitted at Ole Miss. 


WES In an interview he gave in 2003. Ernest Withers described how he helped take James Meredith out of town to spend the night safely with his relatives. 


ERNEST We dropped him off at his cousin's house in Cass. 


WES Stand here the next morning, September 30th. Ernest snapped a picture of James Meredith sitting cross-legged on a couch, relaxing. It was published in Jet magazine with the caption waiting calmly at a secluded spot before entering the University of Mississippi. Meredith watches a television show. He was watching the Today show. And the guest that morning was Martin Luther King Jr. A little later, U.S. marshals gathered to escort James Meredith past the mob and onto campus with Ernest following not too far behind in his car, ready to photograph another historic moment. 


NEWS The town of Oxford is an armed camp following riots that accompanied the registration of the first Negro in the university's 118 year history. 


WES The marshals tried three separate times to get Meredith on the campus, and each time the angry white residents refused to let them through. It all looked pretty hopeless. But then Ernest got a tip. There was a new plan. The marshals were going to airlift Meredith over the crowd and onto campus. Ernest got the picture. Armed troops surrounding a military helicopter just before takeoff. James Meredith eventually made it to his dorm room. But it was a chaotic scene. There were something like 500 U.S. marshals there, in addition to hundreds of angry white students and other residents. 


NEWS Why am I laying hose up to the Lyceum Building, hoping that this will turn away the crowd of students that are getting unruly? And the past few minutes we have heard again that admission of tear gas shells. 


WES It all came to a head at the Lyceum Building, a historic structure that sits at the center of campus and was once a civil war hospital. It's perhaps the most famous building in the state of Mississippi. And on that day, it played host to a riot as marshals faced off with an armed barb throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails and anything else that it could find. 


WES We were in the Lyceum Building when all of that shooting went on down there and they'd confiscated hundreds of rifles. 


WES By the next morning, the violence had subsided. As the federal marshals escorted James Meredith to his American history class. Ernest took photos of the piles of guns that had been seized from the rioters. 


MARK STANSBURY He didn't seem to be afraid at all. 


WES This is Mark Stansbury. He knew Ernest at the time of the Ole Miss riot and began working for him not long afterward. 


MARK STANSBURY And he taught me not to be afraid. You know, go ahead and take my picture. 


WES So it took courage to be a civil rights photographer. 


MARK STANSBURY Oh, I think so. Took a lot of courage. A lot of courage. What was it. 


WES Like being a black photographer covering these issues? 


MARK STANSBURY Well, it was one where you had to be on guard. You had to look out just like you do now. You know, when a police officer stopped by a black man, as I say, driving while black and, you know, and talking while black. And unfortunately, those things went on. But as a photographer myself, I had to be on the lookout, not just from non-African-American, who were not supportive of the move, but also the police officers, because all you had to do was be black and be near a police officer. And picture book hit you with a stick. Yeah. 


WES So you were in some physical danger, even just being out there? 


MARK STANSBURY Oh, yeah, just being I was. By all means. By all means. 


WES Mark was a 19 year old college dropout in 1962 when he asked Ernest if he could be an intern at his photo studio. Before long, Mark had found a mentor. 


MARK STANSBURY He was just like a father to me. He was just like a father to me. 


WES Ernest gave Marc a lot of advice. 


MARK STANSBURY Took me to lunch? Yes. A young man said we got to sit down and talk. You have become so comfortable just hanging around, taking pictures. Say we get to get you back in school, get some letters behind your name so you can help other folk. And that's what he did. And that's that's the way he was. He didn't just think of Ernest, but he thought of himself and his family. Ernest had seven sons and a daughter, and I was just like his eighth son. 


WES Ernest knew nearly everyone around town, and he was quick to introduce his new intern. 


MARK STANSBURY You know, he taught me a lot that I did not know. Introduced me to everybody. I say from the janitor to the chairman of the board because he knew everyone. And he was able to hook me in. 


WES About a year after Mark began working at the studio, Ernest again put his body on the line for the movement. He had traveled to Mississippi to photograph the funeral of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who had been assassinated by a white supremacist inside the messianic temple. Ernest captured an image of Myrlie Evers. Medgar is widow as she wiped the tears from the face of one of her children, even as the mood inside was Solomon mournful. The scene outside soon descended into chaos. There had been a heavy police presence all day with officers at one point preventing Martin Luther King from entering the funeral. After the funeral was over, the police began beating and kicking the mourners. And as Ernest attempted to document the melee, he found himself in the middle of the action. I was standing on the sidewalk photographing one horrible scene after the other. Amidst the screams, EARNEST wrote in an article for the Tri-State Defender, the Black Paper in Memphis. Ernest was beaten by the police and he found himself shoved into the back of a vehicle, hauled off to jail. He tried to hide his film, but the police found it and they destroyed it. No matter what you think about Ernest or his decision to inform on the movement, there's no taking away moments like these. The photos that he captured and spread of James Meredith of the Evers family, they help tell the story of the movement. And telling that story came with a considerable personal risk for Ernest. He had to place himself at the center of the action. It earned him credibility. It earned him access. It would ultimately make him a civil rights hero. And it also was what made him such a valuable asset to the FBI. As I spoke with Mark Stansbury, he told me that he couldn't ever remember Ernest talking with the police. But he does remember one day in the studio when a thin white man in a suit walked in to see Ernest. 


MARK STANSBURY He was there that afternoon and he introduced me to come in and introduced me to him and that was it. He was just telling them about me and that was it. And that was the first and only time that I saw him with the FBI agent. 


WES So tell me more about that. So there was a time when you saw Ernest with an FBI agent? 


MARK STANSBURY Well, yes. He was at the studio looking at photographs. 


WES So an agent came in and was looking at photographs. Right. In Ernest the studio. Right. 




WES Mark didn't realize it at the time, but he had just met Ernest, his handler, Special Agent Bill Lawrence. This was still early in their working relationship, but within a few years, Bill and Ernest would be back in West Tennessee hunting communist. That's after a break. 


WES There was no way that Terry Brown was going home to her parents house in Newark, New Jersey, that summer. It was 1965. She'd just finished her sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the friends that she'd made among the campus activists were all talking about going south. 


TERRY It was definitely word of mouth, somebody coming and say, Hey, you know, we'd really like you to do this. 


WES This was the West Tennessee Voter Project started at Cornell University. It was a student led civil rights initiative to help register black voters in Fayette and Haywood County, Tennessee. 


TERRY If one of those people said that they thought I was good enough to do something like that, that was like, Wow, I better go do that because, you know, they think I'm good enough to do it. 


WES The organization was part of a larger movement led by young people. Young white college students were joining in droves, migrating from their northern college campuses to the civil rights battlegrounds across the south. These students were crucial foot soldiers, but their presence made some locals angry. The previous summer, three young civil rights workers had been abducted and murdered outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. 


TERRY 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, an English teacher who had a big influence on my life. And 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 Terri loaded her bags into her Chevy and began the long drive to Tennessee. 


TERRY And I do clearly remember crossing into someplace that I considered the South. I stopped the car and got out because I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was it was literally the shacks and the flat areas and the mansion up on the hill. It was just didn't compute. In my world, it was shocking. 


WES It wasn't just the poverty that was shocking for Terri. There was a culture, a set of societal norms which was completely foreign to her. 


TERRY One of the people that I worked with was a guy named Alfred Lee Evans. And when we went into town, I expected that we would walk together because I'm a girl from the north and I wouldn't think of crossing the street to to get away from a person of color. But he immediately stopped me. He said, We can't do this. I'm going across the street. And and I looked at him like a deer in the headlights kind of thing. What what just happened? And he said, you don't understand, but I. I can't walk near you. I could get killed. 


WES Alfred knew what he was talking about. He and Terry have been working together to register voters in Summerville, Tennessee, a town where a cross sat perched atop the local water tower, the first thing seen by anyone entering town. The young white volunteers live with local black families. And of the many things that the white residents hated about the outsiders. This was the thing most likely to set them off. Throughout the history of American white supremacy, there has been an obsessive focus on the supposed purity of white women, a mixture of racism and patriarchy that was the driving force behind countless lynchings. And a major factor in the southern resistance to desegregation. And so across these parts of the South, there were few things as dangerous to a black men like Alfred. As the suggestion, the implication that he was sleeping with a white woman. But the locals weren't the only ones keeping a close watch on Terry and the other white volunteers. FBI Special Agent Bill Lawrence had been dispatched to Fayette County to help protect the voting rights of the black residents. But he decided to make spying on the visiting college activists into one of his summer projects. And so he reached out to his favorite informant for a little help. 


ACTOR AS BILL Memo dated five 2165. The writer, while interviewing Ernest C Withers confidential source, discussed the general racial situation in Fayette County and surrounding rural areas with him. 


WES The writer here is Bill Lawrence. 


ACTOR AS BILL And discussed the bureau's internal security responsibilities and intelligence responsibilities. 


WES Ernest told Lawrence that he was planning a trip to Fayette County on assignment for Jet magazine and that while he was there, he would be alert for identities of outsiders who are infiltrating. The point of all the surveillance, according to the FBI, was to monitor any potential communist influence in the movement. In one report, Lawrence warns that the left leaning white volunteers are trying to build a cadre of young Negro teenagers in Fayette County. In another report, Lawrence writes that his informant, Ernest. 


ACTOR AS BILL Fears that many of these Negroes will get a distorted view of society and are engaging in and experiencing a socialistic oriented, beatnik type experience for which they are educationally, emotionally and culturally ill equipped to deal. 


WES It's condescending and conspiratorial. Remember, all of this is about a voter registration campaign. And of course, it's impossible to know if Ernest ever actually said any of these words or if they were put in his mouth by Bill Lawrence and written into reports like these in pursuit of the bureau's agenda. If all the outside activists were doing is registering voters and talking about liberal politics, civil rights, women's liberation, the peace movement, then there there's no justification for monitoring them this way. But what if it were more sinister? Maybe if Bill Lawrence could convince his bosses in Washington that there was something more nefarious afoot, that these volunteers were socialistic outside agitators, then he could justify even more surveillance. Before long, Lawrence had enlisted Ernest to help him build dossiers on many of the volunteers, including biographical details and photos. 


ACTOR AS BILL On 8665. Ernest Withers, confidential source who is a freelance Negro photographer in Memphis and who has gained the confidence of the West Tennessee voters. Project workers furnished this office with a series of photographs which he has taken of some of the key workers and personnel. 


WES According to the FBI report, Terry Brown was one of 17 volunteers who the FBI considered of particular interest due to what Lawrence referred to as reports of, quote, subversive references. 


TERRY Records of the Hillsborough County Superior Court, Nashua, New Hampshire. 


WES We had Terry read from the FBI. 


TERRY Files and the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Newark, New Jersey, reflect that. Molly Brown, born October 7th, 1897. 


WES The records note that Terry's grandmother, Molly, had been a registered member of the Communist Party of New Jersey. 


TERRY Molly Brown, then residing at 310 Johnson Avenue, Newark, New Jersey, was a registered member of the Clinton branch of the Communist Party of New Jersey. 


WES The files list other family details. Her parents had been members of the International Worker's Order. Her brother had once visited Cuba to Bill Lawrence. All of this was evidence that Terry must be a radical, a subversive, a threat who needed to be monitored. But when Terry reads these files, she sees something different. 


TERRY In reference to these documents and going back into my family, to my father, my mother, my grandmother, it was clearly overreach. It's just like, I don't know, like laying cards out on a table and say, see, see those cards? Just look at those cards. You know what I'm saying? It doesn't go anywhere. There's no substance. And the other thing that comes to my mind is, don't you people have something serious to do? 


WES Apparently they did for each of the 17 volunteers. The FBI kept a file like this, a rundown of any and all connections that they could find between that person and any left wing political group. 


ACTOR AS BILL Trina Lorraine Taylor, Coordinator for the regional meeting of the W.E.B. Dubois Clubs of America. Judith and I's insurer Judy I's insurer attended a teenage conference of the Labor Youth League in Chicago, Illinois. Karen Susan Wolfe, member of the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter of the W.E.B. Dubois Clubs of Judges. In 1953, Verna Hunt, the sister of all of Dutchess, was then a leader of the Communist Party in Vineland. Douglas Richard Corti observed Cordy in attendance at a young Socialist Alliance meeting at the universe. Henry Grimm Belzer participated in a sit down demonstration during the annual Presidential Review of the Cornell ROTC. 


WES As Bill Lawrence was assembling these reports and amassing these list of subversive references, Ernest Withers was befriending many of the young activists and getting them to pose for photographs, photos that would then end up in the FBI files. According to the records, on August 5th, 1965, Ernest delivered 27 photos to Bill Lawrence. There's Vicki Brener, smiling at the camera. Hair pulled back. Earrings dangling. Deborah Ripp in deep conversation with a local black leader. There are portraits and casual pictures of volunteers sitting around laughing. Ernest was always there. Just part of the scene. This is Terry Brown again. 


TERRY If you're wondering about whether or not I knew anything about the FBI looking at us or my family or me or anything, I had no clue. I had no expectation that the FBI would be paying the least bit of attention to what us folks were doing in West Tennessee. 


WES EARNEST wasn't just watching. He was also listening. According to the FBI reports, sometimes he would call the volunteers just to gossip on the phone, or he would report back tidbits that he'd overheard from their conversations. One theme that emerged in these FBI reports was whether the white college students were sleeping with any of the local black activists. As Lawrence wrote in one report. Ernest warned him that the local black teens were getting a, quote, sexual thrill out of being able to freely intermix with these white college students. 


ACTOR AS BILL The white workers became openly demonstrative in an amorous fashion with young Negroes on public roads and in view of the public. This tends to inflame the emotions and sensibilities of the whites and many of the Negroes. 


WES In one report, Ernest told the FBI about a party that Terry Brown attended after a march. The volunteers, according to the report, quote, condemned Memphis Negro woman to invite them to a party. It then lists the attendees. 


ACTOR AS BILL Also present was a girl tentatively identified as Terry Brown, together with several Negro males. The latter girl was accompanied by the same. 


TERRY Young Negro male who, according to source, exposed his privates to a group of white onlookers during the July 24th, 1965, Freedom March in Covington, Tennessee. This young man, whose name is not the. 


ACTOR AS BILL Man whose name is not known, told this source that he had an uncontrollable impulse to expose himself when he got into a crowd. 


TERRY The whole thing is insulting. It's. It's degrading. It's. It's. And then there's me coming in there with several Negro males. Wow. You know, it couldn't be that. You know, we came in off of the pickup truck and joined the party. No. You know, it had to be the the suggestion that, you know, I had this coterie of Negro males around me, which. I don't even know what to do with that. But, you know, you want to give the wrong impression of what's going on and insinuate that, you know, we're trying to take away whatever white supremacist privilege you feel you're owed. This is a good way to do it. 


WES And then there were the pictures, like the one of Terry and Cash Williams sitting together and are in a studio and another where a teenage black girl is sitting in the lap of a white male volunteer, her arm draped around his neck, his arm wrapped around her waist. All of these photos were sent back to washington to William C Sullivan, the number two man at the FBI who ran co intel pro the bureau's covert operation for spying on and disrupting political groups that the FBI did subversive. Now that Terry Brown has seen her FBI file. She's angry with Ernest. Sure, he did some good work, but for her, his collaboration with the feds to villainize her and the other activists was a betrayal, a betrayal of the very movement that he claimed to believe in. 


TERRY I mean, he's dead and we can't go back and check. But in in my personal opinion, it was very intentional without any concern of the harm that it might do. I mean, you can say he hustled to make a living wherever he could. He had eight children to feed the tenant farmer, the sharecropper that got thrown off his land. He had children to feed. I can understand somebody who is conservative, not supporting the Tennessee Voters Project, maybe not even supporting Martin Luther King, perhaps not even supporting integration. I don't know. What I cannot justify is collaborating for money with the FBI. Against anybody's right to vote. From my point of view is not forgivable. It's. He caused a lot of harm. Yes, he did. Great pictures. Other people took pictures that maybe were in a stunning maybe weren't as popular, but we would have had pictures. But without Ernest Withers, we would not have had a lot of the suffering that we had. 


WES But as much as it was a betrayal, there was dissension within the movement and skepticism from some of the local black activists towards the young white college outsiders who had showed up to help. Skepticism from people like Viola and John McFerrin. 


ACTOR AS BILL Director, FBI Date 1965 regarding West Tennessee Voters Project Racial Matters. 


WES This is another report written by Bill Lawrence. 


ACTOR AS BILL On August 18, 1965. Mrs. Viola McFerrin, a Negro resident of Fayette County, Tennessee, advised representatives of the FBI as follows. A problem has arisen within the civil rights movement in Fayette County, Tennessee, which greatly concerns her. 


WES According to the report, Viola Mcferran thought that the outside activists who had come to join the West Tennessee Voter Project had created a great deal of confusion, dissension and dissatisfaction among the Negro population. She and others were nervous about how these outsiders were fitting in with the local movement. In a letter published in the Ithaca Journal, the MCFERRAN has criticized the project for crimes against the people of Fayette County and for sexual immorality. 


DAPHNE I do remember specifically my parents being very concerned about what they saw as developing relationships between some of the black men in the county and the white women, and vice versa. 


WES This is Daphne Mcferran, Viola and John's daughter. 


DAPHNE It wasn't because they were interracial relationships that they cared about. What my parents cared about is that the whites in the county would legitimatize the movement by saying This is a movement where sexual conduct is going on and this is not a legitimate movement because this is immoral conduct. So it had nothing to do with the conduct by itself. It was the conduct in relationship to undermining the movement. 


WES And that perception, fair or not, put volunteers like Terry at risk, not from local activists like the MC Ference, but from local white residents who are determined to drive them out. Terry didn't fully realize how much danger she was in until one night when a friend overheard some local men talking. 


DAPHNE She heard some people talking about the the little one with the frizzy hair and how it was time to get rid of her. 


WES They were talking about Terry. 


TERRY They had planned to shoot me that night. So immediately everybody, you know, got right on it and they got me under a blanket and in the backseat of a car and shuffled me right out of the county that evening and waited until it was dark and got me out. And that's how I left Tennessee. 


WES Terry Brown's Tennessee summer was over. But the tension that surfaced in Fayette County would only intensify as the civil rights movement continued. EARNEST wasn't the only one talking to the FBI during the civil rights era. Thousands of people were approached, some casually and some not. It wasn't a request. 


DAPHNE They were saying, you must do this. I had the FBI say to me when I was covering the Black Panthers, they said, if you don't do this, you know, we can get a subpoena for your testimony and make you appear before grand juries we have go with. 


WES What did it mean to be an informant? That's next time. An 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 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 mix. It is by Casey Holford. Special thanks to reporter and author Marc Persky 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.