The unforgiving lens of history

Updated

(Photo from the Ernest C. Withers Trust, courtesy Decaneas Archive, via the Memphis Commercial-Appeal) Photography has always been my favorite visual art, for one central reason: to me, it is the perfect combination of certainty and interpretation. For a Civil Rights photojournalist like Ernest C. Withers, I have to wonder if he knew how America and the world at large would interpret the very real pain, struggle and courage depicted in the images he captured. Images like this, and this. Through Withers’ lens, many of us were introduced, visually, to African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s – even my generation, who saw Withers’ photos of Memphis sanitation workers holding signs saying “I AM A MAN” in a history book, causing us to puff our chests out a little further that day. In many ways, Withers – who died in 2007 at age 85 – was a hero to me. This morning, I am heartbroken. I find it hard to consider someone a hero when he informed on the Civil Rights leaders who considered him in their confidence, and did it for money. Ernest C. Withers was a paid informant to the F.B.I.:

From at least 1968 to 1970, Mr. Withers, who was black, provided photographs, biographical information and scheduling details to two F.B.I. agents in the bureau’s Memphis domestic surveillance program, Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, according to numerous reports summarizing their meetings.. A clerical error appears to have allowed for Mr. Withers’s identity to be divulged: In most cases in the reports, references to Mr. Withers and his informer number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. But in several locations, the F.B.I. appears to have forgotten to hide them. The F.B.I. said Monday that it was not clear what had caused the lapse in privacy and was looking into the incident.
As you might imagine, some share my disappointment:
Civil rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and disbelief. “If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship,” said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s… “It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University who has written books about the F.B.I. “It really speaks to the degree that the F.B.I. was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”
A perfect combination of certainty, and interpretation. I guess what applies to photography can also apply to history, and those we dub as our heroes.

Civil Rights

The unforgiving lens of history

Updated