Unfinished: Ernie's Secret

Episode 7: Harm/No Harm

WES: May 21st, 1971, was the perfect day for a wedding. The bride is wearing a blue and gold sari, her long hair neatly parted on the side. She's holding a bouquet of daisies. Her groom is in a light brown suit, no tie. The couple stands surrounded by family. They're all smiling for the camera and waiting for their friend Ernest Withers to take the photo. 


KATHY: He definitely got pictures of everybody that was at the wedding. You know, he's a good photographer. The pictures were good. 


WES: On the back side of each photo. The photographer left his trademark. 


KATHY: Ernest Withers, photographer, tornado, something every picture stamped. 


WES: By the time Kathy hired Ernest to photograph her wedding, the two had been friends for three years. Ernest hung out with her and her crowd. A large group of peace activists, part of the new left in Memphis. 


KATHY: You know, Withers was a friendly old man and, you know, it was no problem having him around. 


WES: He came to their parties. He took their picture at protests. He listened in during their organizing meetings. And then, he turned all of that stuff over to the FBI. 


KATHY: I should have paid more attention to the mother. But nobody did because he was this gentle old man that everybody in Memphis liked. It wasn't like, you know, some of the other jerks that were informers. You know, he had a he had a profession as a photographer and, you know, he did his job pretty well. Unfortunately. 


WES: From 1968 until 1973, Ernest Withers passed on dozens of photos of Kathy and gave his handler a variety of reports about her political activities. The FBI was investigating Kathy as a suspected communist and as a security threat. The investigations and the information that Ernest was providing would come back to haunt Cathy and she believes cost her her career. 


KATHY: Why? Ernest Weathers and the FBI thought it was so important to follow me for 16 years. It's scary. I mean, it's scary that your government would do something like that. And you know what? They'd do it again. 


WES: This is Unfinished: Ernie's Secret. I'm Wesley Lowery. 


WES: In our last episode, we talked about how for decades the FBI ran an operation called COINTEL PRO. The program was supposed to be about monitoring the domestic influence of foreign communists. Instead, it operated as a massive, often illegal intelligence dragnet. Throughout the sixties and seventies. The FBI kept widening the definition of who was a national security threat. They labeled more and more people as radicals or as militants, and then they used those labels to justify putting those people under surveillance. To spy on these Americans, the FBI enlisted thousands of informants. Some were paid and directed. Go to this meeting. Identify these people. Others were confidential sources, pastors, bankers, telephone company employees, landlords, people who were asked to use their position to furnish information to the FBI. Ernest Withers was both. He was paid and directed by FBI agents, and he also used his position as a photographer to gather information from a wide cross-section of activists. It's worth mentioning again that when it comes to earnest, we are never going to have all of the answers. The FBI has only ever released about half of its records about EARNEST. And as far as we can tell, he never really discussed his decision to serve as an informant with anyone before his death. We don't know why EARNEST agreed to work with the FBI. We don't know everyone he informed on, and we don't have any reports that he actually wrote with his own hand. What we do have is what Bill Lawrence and other FBI agents chose to write down when we read their reports. It's impossible to know how much of what's on the paper really came from earnest and how much of it they might have put in his mouth. We know that much of what the FBI was doing under CO Intel Pro was illegal, that it used intimidation and violence to discredit and disrupt political movements and to harass the people who are in those movements. Simply put, the FBI did harm. But how much of that harm can we trace? Can we attribute to an individual informant? That's the question we're going to explore in this episode. Just how much damage did Ernest Withers do and to what extent do the sins of the FBI fall on Ernest's shoulders? And I got to tell you, these are complicated questions because the people he informed on, they don't agree on the answers. Kathy Rupe was five when her family moved from Massachusetts to Memphis. Kathy is white and here's how she remembers Memphis in the fifties. 


KATHY: Racist, racist and scary. But within the community of progressive people, they were were kind, intelligent and and, you know, committed. 


WES: By 1968, Kathy was an outspoken college student. She was marching through the streets, supporting the sanitation workers, calling for desegregation and demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. So what did your activism look like once you got involved in a full throated way? 


KATHY: You know, what Wes I was just a damn good organizer. I just we organize for peace and justice. When something came up about something racist or killer, I mean, the police were shooting young black men in the back who broke into a candy machine. These were very scary times. So my activism was solely based on organizing people and helping people get their voice out. 


WES: Ernest first began informing on her in late November 1968, when Cathy was a student at Southwestern College, a liberal arts school in Memphis. He took pictures of her at a welfare rights rally. Her hair was in pigtails. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Date 12/31/68 from Special Agent William H. Lawrence. Subject Black Organizing Project, a.k.a. Invaders. With regard to the 11/29/68 March of Negro Welfare recipients supported by Students for a Democratic Society. 


WES: Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was a student organization known for its antiwar activism. They were self-described radicals, but by the late sixties, the group had splintered. One faction, the Weather Underground, launched a wave of bombings. The memo about the welfare rally continues. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: And it was helped in its set up by young militants of the SDS. One of whom was Kathy Roop....


KATHY: One of whom was Cathy Roop. Many of the SDS people served as babysitters at Clayborn Temple. Why the Mothers Marched. Cathy Roop with the group. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Was observed driving a white Opel station wagon. Tennessee License Car 9805. 


KATHY: My license plate number. 


WES: The FBI was watching the local chapter, watching as it teamed up with local black militants. And in several reports, EARNEST told the FBI that Kathy was at the center of the SDS Organizing in Memphis. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Memo August 25,1969. Cathy appears Catherine M Roop, White female, described by source as one of the original members of SDS in Memphis, Tennessee. 


WES: But here's the thing. She wasn't. 


KATHY: He had me in so many organizations that I never even went to a meeting for. I mean, he just put me here and put me there and, you know, in the files. Most of what's in there I did not do. He has about a page and a half for the weatherman. I didn't even know anybody in the Weathermen. I never went to an SDS meeting. He had me going to SDS meetings all the time. 


WES: Kathy says she had friends who were in SDS, but she wasn't a member herself, and she certainly wasn't. As the FBI files say, one of the group's, quote, original members. 


WES: When you read these, why do you think this happened this way, that all these things appeared in these reports that just aren't true? 


KATHY: I'm looking for an answer. Why were they and so intent to follow me and to make up all these stories about me trying to make me look like a violent, dangerous woman? I don't know why. 


WES: Kathy was a communist in 1970. She joined a chapter of the Communist Party's youth organization, the Young Workers Liberation League, known as YWLL. 


KATHY: I was only in the Communist Party, was about four or five people, because it was people that fought racism and fought the war. And I was impressed that there was young white people who were willing to talk about what racism is and the economic impact. And so that's why I was in the Communist Party. Only one reason. 


WES: The return of Communist to Memphis drew particular attention from the FBI. Remember, Special Agent Bill Lawrence was a communist hunter. He had worked hard to eliminate communists from his city, but now they were back. So the FBI's interest in Kathy intensified. Agents recorded the addresses of all the apartments where she had lived. They wrote down the names of the restaurants where she had waitressed. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Source stated that there was a party held on the evening of April 10, 1971, at Kathy Roop's residence. It was a birthday party sponsored by YWLL members, but no YWLL business or activity took place. 


WES: In terms of the way that that birthday party is described.  That this is a Communist party. I mean, I look, a lot of you were activist, you were involved. But was was this just a birthday party or were you secretly plotting something? 


KATHY: Wasn't a communist Party meeting. No, I don't remember the list of people that were there. But hell, not everybody in Memphis was in the Communist Party. So it was friends. You know, a lot of people were around us that weren't you know, that participated in activities but weren't members of the Communist Party. I mean, there were only four or five people that were members of the Communist Party, and I was only in the Communist Party for less than two years as far as what I can remember or figure out. So this Communist Party business was way blown out of proportion for what it was Everybody was in, Withers has everybody in the party, and you know, none of that was true. 


WES: The agency's interest grew even further when Kathy got involved in the campaign to free Angela Davis. 


NEWS CASTER: In America, supporters of the black liberation movements are stepping up the pressure in the campaign to free Angela Davis. 


WES: Angela Davis was a member of the Communist Party and a Black Panther supporter. She was in prison, charged with murder. She would later be acquitted. But not long after Kathy began her activism on behalf of Davis, things got dangerous. 


KATHY: They bombed my car. 


WES: In the early hours of April 19th, 1971, someone tossed a hand grenade in the parking lot outside of Kathy's apartment. 


KATHY: You wake up another night to a huge explosion. My husband's car had shrapnel all over it. I had a VW old VW station wagon, and it was it was burned up. That was terrifying. 


WES: One of the first people Kathy called was Ernest. He shot more than a dozen pictures that night. One of them shows Kathy peering into her burned Volkswagen. No one was ever arrested for the attack. But what Kathy didn't know at the time was that just eight days earlier, Ernest had been talking to the FBI about her. He told them that she was trying to raise money for her different activist organizations. He reported that Kathy had met with executives at Stax Records, one of the country's most popular soul music labels located in downtown Memphis. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Memo, dated for 1971, received from ME338R, method of delivery in person. Source stated that Al Bell of Stax Records gave Kathy Roop and the WYLL $250 and also made donations to the Committee to Free Angela Davis. 


KATHY: We did go to the renowned recording studio in Memphis, Stax. We did talk to Al Bell about money for the Angela Davis campaign and he gave us some money and otherwise than that. We just sat on the steps at Stax and waited for Otis Redding to come out. 


WES: You know, I don't think I could blame you for that. 


KATHY: But he forgot to put that in there. 


WES: Now, when it's written up in a report like that, this feels very ominous. You know, you're meeting with these big executives to get money for Angela Davis. She's a Black Panther. But this is you. While raising money for the legal defense for someone charged with a crime, all this seems like constitutionally protected behavior. 


KATHY: Absolutely. No. People were more than glad to donate a little bit of money to young black and white people that were working together to make change. But it was developed into something that that made you look like you were violent and a threat to society and going to overthrow the country. And, you know, so, yeah, I mean, you know, I look, I read this stuff, to be real honest with I read it. I am just absolutely  horrified. I am horrified at what happened and what's in these files. I mean, I could cry right now thinking about it. It's so awful that I was targeted. 


WES: The FBI would keep close tabs on Cathy for another few years. And then in August 1974 and its 659th report on Kathy, Ernest told the agent that she was leaving Memphis. She'd gotten a scholarship for graduate school in Ohio. By 1984, Kathy was completing her doctorate in gas chromatography, which is the analysis of toxic chemicals. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offered her a position as an industrial hygienist. Now 36, she'd be testing workplaces for hazardous chemicals like asbestos. But then there was a snack. A routine background check turned up that Cathy had been the focus of a national security investigation between 1971 and 1976. 


KATHY: It was awful. You know, I'm just about finished my Ph.D. on where I want to be. 


WES: The Office of Personnel Management asked for a full investigation. They said they had to determine Cathy's loyalty. 


KATHY: And it wanted me to turn over every file that have been ever filed in my life and the names of all my friends. And and, by the way, if I wanted to, I could provide them with my Social Security number. 


WES: But in order for the investigation to move forward, Kathy would have to sign a privacy waiver. She refused. And so she was fired. So Kathy filed a lawsuit in federal court. Eventually, she was reinstated. 


KATHY: But it was hell. I mean, every day was hell. They wanted me out of there, no question. They wanted me out of there. So I'd been burned and hurt. Tired. I left. 


WES: Why did they tell you? What was the reason they told you for why they wanted you out? 


KATHY: They said that I was a I was good on the job where I was, but that I was probably going to be promoted. And they did not think that I should be in a position promoted in that agency because, of course, I was a communist and a dangerous person. 


WES: So this wasn't victimless. Ernest was passing along all this information, and even at times when it might not have been true, or if it feels a little innocuous, this has had a real impact on your life. 


KATHY: Oh, yeah. They were out to get me. When I read these files, there is no question about it. They were. This was not a victimless crime. I mean, he did his job. He just ripped me apart with non-technical information about me and my life. 


WES: The details you see in these. Are they things that would have really undermined you from a operational standpoint at the time, or was it simply that these are details that the FBI could have used to further harass you? Did it matter to you that the FBI had your license plate number? 


KATHY: We had no idea of the FBI was doing that. So we just looked. We just had to be scared. 


WES: Yeah, I guess I guess part of what we're getting at or try at trying to grapple with is that today, the idea that the police would have my license plate number I take as a given. 


KATHY: Well, my phone was tapped, my car was bombed, my mail was open and scotch taped back. You know, all these things were not normal. And clearly we were being watched. What were they trying to do? They really trying to just destroy me, intimidate me to the point that I'd stop. Well, that wasn't going to happen. But I will tell you, when the FBI's parked in front of your house and your your phone is tapped and your mail is open and Scotch taped back, it's a problem. It's scary. It's very uneasy feeling, particularly when you're just a good person. 


WES: Is there anything you would say to Ernest today if you could? Yeah. If you could ask him a question. 


KATHY: I'd say you were just most incredibly immoral person I could possibly meet. How could you do that to all of these people that had good hearts and good times to help civil rights and peace movement? How could you be so amoral? 


WES: What if he said I needed the money or the FBI had something on me? 


KATHY: I say, you say that. That doesn't even make any difference. You are so amoral about what you did to all of us and what you've done to me with all these files and all that lying that you did. And I just don't want to have anything to do with you again. And I will badmouth you whenever I have a chance to when I go to Memphis. 


WES: Kathy's response, her belief that Ernest was immoral. It's one of the most upset, one of the most absolute responses that I got in all of my interviews with the people who spied on. It's not completely surprising. Kathy was one of the people most clearly and directly victimized by Ernest as an informant. But it does seem noteworthy how much more absolute her conclusions are than any number of the other people, especially many of the black activists who showed up in the FBI files. Here's Kathy, a white woman who's willing to define Ernest and his legacy solely by his betrayal. While many of the black activists, many of whom were equally betrayed and endangered, they insist on considering Ernest with a different level of nuance. That's not to say that there's a hard and fast racial divide here. There are black activists who remain infuriated with Ernest. And there are white activists who are willing to be circumspect. But it's worth pointing out directly, as a general rule, that the black people with whom I've shared these FBI files seem much more inclined to give Ernest the benefit of the doubt to direct their anger at the FBI, at the system itself, and not at Ernest as an individual. More on that after the break. 


WES: On January 17th, 1973, Ernest Withers aimed his camera at 1498 Marjory Street in South Memphis. It was the local Black Panther headquarters. Ernest delivered three pictures of the house to the FBI. One was from across the street. Another was a close up, showing the steps leading to the front porch. And another was from the back yard, showing a narrow rear entrance. This was the kind of information the FBI could have used to storm the house. Willie Henry lived there with his wife and several others. 


WILLIE HENRY: But I got to know Ernest Withers while I was in the Black Panther Party. 


WES: Decades later, William Henry Junior settles into a chair in his busy office in downtown Memphis. He was born here, and as a kid, he lived through segregation and the rise of the civil rights movement. 


WILLIE HENRY: I grew up watching people pay those dues when I was a child and knew that one day I wanted to do my part belonged to the NAACP as a child. And when the sanitation strike started, I was with the community on the move for equality. But after Dr. King was killed, my attitude about what it might take changed. I was drawn to the Black Panther Party because they believed in self-defense. 


WES: The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland, California, in 1966. It was an organization that advocated for black nationalism, socialism and armed self-defense, particularly against police brutality. It was also known for its social programs, free breakfast for kids and medical clinics. The Panthers caused a full fledged law enforcement freak out. These weren't the pastors and students of the civil rights movements. They were militant black men and women carrying guns, calling for self-defense and self-reliance. In other words, J. Edgar Hoover's nightmare come true. He called the Panthers, quote, the greatest threat to the internal security of the country. And the FBI responded with full force waging a war against the group. 


WILLIE HENRY: I was never a thug. But we were often portrayed as thugs. But if you stand against the status quo, that thing that's born in fear and ignorance that we call racism. Then you are a threat. So they try to destroy you. 


WES: When the Black Panthers arrived in Memphis in early 1970, they became Ernest Focus as an informant. At first he was doing his usual info gathering, passing on phone numbers, ID members. But soon Ernest went deep into the organization. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: June 6, 1973 Memphis. Tennessee The following persons are considered to be active members of the Memphis Chapter of the Black Panther Party. As of the end of May 1973. 


WES: There are seven people on that list. Willie Henry is at the top. At the bottom. The final name is Ernest Withers. He had listed himself as a member of the Memphis Black Panthers. He had penetrated their inner circle. 


WILLIE HENRY: Now, some people have said that Ernest was an informant. And every time I hear that, I really kind of chuckle. 


WES: The FBI and the Memphis Police had a team of informants that had infiltrated the Panthers. But Willie Henry says he just doesn't buy that Ernest was one of them. 


WILLIE HENRY: Because if he was, he made a complete fool out of the people who were paying him. He had a lot of children and there wasn't a lot of money to be made as a photographer for Ernest. And I think he exploited the hell out of the Memphis Police Department, the FBI, and anybody else who thought that he would tell them anything substantive that would make a difference in anything they wanted to do. He fed them what he wanted them to know. 


WES: That seems a bit generous. Especially given some of the FBI reports. Here's one in which Ernest details guns that were supposedly being stored inside the Panther house. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Memphis, Tennessee August 10, 1973. Source advised There is a 38 caliber pistol and a shotgun located at 1498 Marjory. September 26, 1973. They also have in their possession a 12 gauge shotgun, which is kept in the living room of this house. A fourth gun, a small caliber carbine, is kept in the possession of Willie Henry. 


WES: But Willie was willing to explain away even this report when we showed him the FBI records. He told us that all he sees is a man making some money for his family. That nothing in these records actually proves that Ernest did him any harm. 


WILLIE HENRY: Ernest made a fool out of the law enforcement and fed his children and took care of his children. But Ernest never did anything to me or any other member of the Black Panther Party that did us any harm, caused us any time in jail or any arrest or any bodily harm. He was more of a godfather. You know, and those who want to paint him as some kind of double agent, they are so far from the truth and they obviously don't know him. I knew him. And I will tell anybody. That man was not a snitch. He was just shrewd. And he used some people who were anxious for information and didn't know when they were being fed bull. I almost said bovine fecal matter. 


WES: In the battle between the FBI and the movement, Willie says that there's nothing in the files that shakes his belief about which side Ernest Withers was on. 


WILLIE HENRY: There is part of my black experience that toughens me and I shake it off because what could have been a could have been any other Black Panthers that they killed. And that's not impossible at this point. So when I say did no harm, a picture, my name, my address, I was in a life and death struggle. And if he didn't make me bleed, I didn't go to jail or I didn't get killed. He did no harm because the intention of those people who wanted these photographs and this information was to kill me. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Ernest was someone who, in my opinion, was not a man who kowtowed. I see him as more of an asset than a deficit to everything we did. And I acknowledge the fact that the information that he shared could have been used to hurt a lot of people. But Ernest was a hero. And I don't know, a hero who doesn't have flaws. 


WES: While some of the information that Ernest was kicking up to the FBI could have been used to hurt people, Willie says that he doesn't see any evidence in these records that it actually was used that way. The real harm, the real destruction that was done by the government. And Willie isn't the only person who Ernest informed on who's arrived at this conclusion. 


WES: Do you feel betrayed by Ernest? 


ROSETTA: No, not really. 


WES: Rosetta Miller. Perry worked for the Civil Rights Commission. In 1968, she was the field representative assigned to cover the sanitation workers strike in Memphis. We sit at a round table in her Nashville office. Rosetta is 87 and she tells us this is the first conversation she's had in person outside of her home since COVID began. 


WES: Do you think you know, you said you don't feel betrayed. You don't really feel betrayed? 




WES: Do you think you would have felt betrayed if you had known this at the time? When you were younger, when you were still an actress in the streets, if you had found out? 


ROSETTA: If. When I was younger. Yes. 


WES: Why? 


ROSETTA: Because I was more active and militant and angry and bitter. But at my age now, I've mellowed out and I just feel that he did what he had to do to survive. 


WES: But back then, it would have been this would have been a major betrayal for you and for your for your colleagues. 




WES: And you would have felt at the time that it might have put you in danger. 




WES: According to the FBI files, Ernest gave the agency photos of Rosetta as well as Intel. 


ACTOR AS BILL LAWRENCE: Memo 51368 regarding photographs of Rosetta Miller. On 3/12/68 ME338R ghetto furnished two photographs of Rosetta Miller, Clerk, U.S. Civil Rights Commission Office, Federal Office Building Memphis, taken in February 1968. He said she is the type who is a rumor monger and one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups. 


WES: A few months later, Rosetta is described in reports as the controversial Negro and as someone who was involved in a marriage that lasted, quote, only one week. Ernest is cited as the source. Rosetta says none of that was true. 


ROSETTA: Absolutely not. How could I marry someone? I'm already married. It has to hurt when you hear something about you that you know that's not true and people are spreading things. I can't say it didn't hurt me, but. It didn't hurt my career. 


WES: More than 50 years later, Rosetta is more generous to Ernest and less to the government. 


ROSETTA: I've just. Have had many experiences in life since then. And I just realize that sometimes people have to do what they can to survive and for their families to survive, they do what they have to do. 


WES: Why do you think people in the black community are skeptical? Well, this reporting and of these claims. 


ROSETTA: I guess because. We don't trust. We've been lied to. So. If there is no element of trust, you know, we're going to feel this way forever. 


WES: That if your choice is between believing the FBI or giving the benefit of the doubt to someone you know, have known for decades who is in the trenches with you, that's an easy choice. 


ROSETTA: Yes. And from what we know about the FBI today. Uh, we don't have any confidence because. We know now that they they lie, they make up things. They do things. They create things. They destroy people. 


WES: What did you think when this story first broke? 


DAPHNE: Wow. When the story broke that he was an FBI agent, I was just. Wow. 


WES: This is Daphne McFerrin. We met her at an earlier episode. Her parents, Viola and John, were the ones who helped lead the voter registration movement in Fayette County, Tennessee. Daphne now runs the Benjamin Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. And before her parents died, she interviewed them, asking them how they felt after learning that Ernest Withers had been an informant. 


DAPHNE: So my mother's response was she wasn't surprised at all. She didn't know, but she wasn't surprised at all. And she said, and I'm paraphrasing, that basically he was a complicated person. And the conduct was, now, since she knew about it, didn't surprise her at all. My father, on the other hand, he just threw up his hand in exasperation. And I knew my father well enough. When he passed. He was 94. He'd seen a lot. He'd been through a lot. And he suffered both mentally and physically, physically, because of his involvement in the civil rights movement. And my father and mother were both what we call back in the day race people. What that means is that you, your obligation to your race comes first. You don't out your people. You don't do things that make your people suffer. You protect your people. And that's what it means to be a race person. But he also understood that people like Withers are created by this country, which has had some of the most oppressive attitudes, conditions and reactions to African-Americans. The Withers conduct was created by the very country which persecuted them as activist. I think there was an unwillingness to speak negatively about Withers because while they clearly did not approve of his conduct and would have been absolutely live it had they known that he was an informant in the sixties, time and perspective gave them a long term view of how they should view sort of people's contributions and people and and also they had some understanding of of how people can be pushed into doing things which may on the outside appear of their own volition. But in fact, are you ever really in control when you control nothing? 


WES: So it's interesting because as we talk with a lot of activists and as I've talked with activists from this time, people who knew Ernest, people who were betrayed by Ernest, we get a lot of that perspective. This the sense that, well, at the time we would have been really upset about this, but, you know, maybe he didn't really have a choice or was it really that bad or what was he really giving? It does very often seem as if many of the activists are more generous with Ernest today than they might have been in the fifties and sixties had they known in real time. 


DAPHNE: Well, that I think may be true for all of us, that when we are wronged in the contemporary sense, over time, our views about it soften. It doesn't negate the fact that. The conduct, his his actions in writing down license plates and providing them to the FBI or being paid for his work did not cause harm. And I know a lot of those people and I know that they don't want an FBI file on them. So people that I know and who are still alive were impacted by Ernest with his conduct, and it was of consequence. 


WES: Now, you mentioned that some of the perspective that comes with time is a little skepticism about the idea that things that people do of their own volition was this truly of their own volition, given the power dynamics at the time, the power of the FBI, the relative lack of power that Ernest as a black man would have had? What are the different factors at play there? 


DAPHNE: Well, I don't think it's that complicated. I think what we have to look at and what I look at is Mr. Withers made a decision. He made a decision that he wanted to be an FBI informant. It was a choice for whatever reasons. This worked for him. And this was a role he was comfortable with. Yes, there are forces that do impact how we navigate the world, but especially this. I think we have to say there was some with respect to Mr. Withers actions, some decision on his part to do this. And let me make a distinction here. My folks did talk to the FBI, clearly not as informants, but to get protection. There were threats against my parents all the time. And even in the evictions, the sharecroppers had to talk to FBI agents because the FBI agents wanted to know who were the white farmers who evicted them, what happened to them, when did they try to vote and that kind of thing. So they did see the federal government as providing some protection against a white citizen council and racist in their own communities. That is a distinction between being a member of the team. They understood the limits of what the federal government could do. In a nutshell, I would have to say at the end of the day, yes, there were external forces, but he made a decision to do this. 


WES: Next time on Unfinished: Ernie's Secret, we return to Memphis 1968. When everything is changing for Ernest, for the FBI, and for the movement.