Longtime Memphis journalist Marc Perrusquia spent years investigating the story of how a famous African American photographer, with remarkable access, played a key role in the civil rights movement, all while being an informant for the FBI.
Ernest Withers’s photography captured some of the most stunning moments of the civil rights era: including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. riding one of the first integrated buses in Montgomery, AL, and the blood flowing into King’s room from the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, where he was assassinated. Withers had a front row seat to history, as a man trusted and beloved by the movement’s inner circle. All the while he was reporting back to the FBI.
On this 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Perrusquia talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about Withers and the impact that his information had on both the civil rights movement and the Bureau.
Perrusquia speculates that Withers, who was also a disgraced cop, may have actually been a double agent, informing both the FBI and some of the people he trusted in the movement about what he believed was a noble effort that had gone too far. Withers’s conservative views made him critical of King’s anti-war stance and of the dangers that he saw posed by radicals inside the movement.
In addition to the story of Withers, the FBI, and the civil rights struggle, Perrusquia tells Schechtman about his own battles to get all of this information from the FBI, and how hard the Bureau fought to protect its informant.
Marc Perrusquia is the author of A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement (Melville House, March 27, 2018).