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Surveillance State: Government Snooping, Prying, and Informing Worse Than You Think

Tainted character, ruined trust and the disruption of democratic politics are the great achievements of state surveillance.

The dried blood on the concrete floor is there for all to see, a stain forever marking the spot on a Memphis motel balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. lay mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet.

It is a stark and ghostly image speaking to the sharp pain of absence. King is gone. His aides are gone. Only the stain remains. What now?

That image is, of course, a photograph taken by Ernest C. Withers, Memphis born and bred, and known as the photographer of the civil rights movement.  He was there at the Lorraine Motel, as he had been at so many other critical places, recording iconic images of those tumultuous years. 

In addition to photographing moments large and small in the struggle for black civil rights in the South, Withers had another job. He was an informer for the FBI, passing along information on the doings of King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Ben Hooks, and other leaders of the movement. He reported on meetings he attended as a photographer, welcomed in by those he knew so intimately. He passed along photos of events and gatherings to his handler, Special Agent William H. Lawrence of the FBI’s Memphis office. He named names and sketched out plans.

In an exhaustive recent report, the Memphis Commercial Appeal detailed Withers’s undercover activities, provoking a pained and complex response from the many who knew him and were involved in the civil rights movement.  His family simply refuses to believe that the paper’s report could be accurate. On the other hand, Andrew Young, with King during those last moments, accepts Withers’s career as an informant, saying it just doesn’t bother him.  Civil rights leaders, including King, viewed Withers as crucial to the movement’s struggle to portray itself accurately in Jet, Ebony, and other black journals. In that Withers was successful -- and the rest, Young suggests, doesn’t matter.  Besides, he told the Commercial Appeal, they had nothing to hide.  “I don't think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side.”

Activist and comedian Dick Gregory, hearing Young’s comments, turned on his old comrade. “We are talking about a guy hired by the FBI to destroy us and the fact that Andy could say that means there must be a deep hatred down inside of him,” he said. “If he feels that way about King only God knows what he feels about the rest of us.”

This is the way it is with informers, so useful to reckless law enforcement authorities and employed by the tens of thousands as the secret shock troops of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Surveillance has multiple uses, not the least of which is to sow mistrust, which in turn eats at the cohesion of families, social and political movements, and ultimately the fabric of community itself.

D’Army Bailey, a former Memphis judge and target of FBI surveillance in the 1960s, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the use of informers in everyday life ruptured fundamental civic bonds, fomenting deep suspicion and mistrust. “It's something you would expect in the most ruthless totalitarian regimes.  Once that trust is shattered that doesn't go away.”

Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and now a professor of journalism at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, pointed out that the black community in the South in the 1960s granted a special trust to black journalists. Indeed, some of those journalists took out an ad in black newspapers in February 1970 pledging not to spy or inform or betray that trust.

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