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Withers' actions are 'bitter betrayal'

By D'Army Bailey, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • D'Army Bailey says photographer Ernest Withers was his role model as a child
  • Claims that Withers sold information to FBI are "bitter betrayal," he says
  • Many others refused to betray civil rights movement, Bailey writes
  • He doubts things would be different even if Withers were alive to explain himself

Editor's note: D'Army Bailey is a founder of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and a former Tennessee Circuit Court judge who now practices law. He is author of "Mine Eyes Have Seen: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Journey" and "The Education of A Black Radical, A Southern Civil Rights Activist's Journey, 1959-1964." CNN looks at the story of Ernest Withers, the civil rights photographer-turned-FBI informant, in "Pictures Don't Lie," an In America special, at 8 p.m. ET Saturday.

(CNN) -- I knew Ernest Withers growing up as a child in Memphis in the 1950s. He was a role model in a time when black role models were few and far between. He captured essential parts of my life and the rich culture of black Memphis.

It goes without saying that Ernest Withers was one of the great photographers of the civil rights movement. But the integrity of the civil rights freedom movement, its participants and black journalists is far too important to simply excuse him and anyone who sold information on our activities and plans to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

It is a bitter betrayal.

It is hard to forgive Withers when his presence among us as a chronicler of our movement was welcomed and admired. Now, it seems to have been sinister, exposing us to scrutiny when we thought we were safe.

This was a time when armed civil rights volunteers had to stand outside our homes and rallies, when we took surreptitious detours to avoid being followed and when police agents stood outside church rallies in Birmingham and other hot spots, taking pictures to intimidate and identify supporters.

I vividly remember the many nights I shook in fear for my own life and that of my family.

I spent decades participating in movement protests and organizing meetings all over the country. These were serious times when the government, through Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee and powerful officials such as Sen. Jim Eastland of Mississippi, were doing all they could to undermine and destroy our activism.

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We knew that some civil rights leaders would contact government authorities and the FBI from time to time to give them a heads up on planned protest activities, in the hope that they would provide protection. But had any individual maverick in a group ever been found to be taking money to provide internal details, perhaps photographs and identities to federal authorities, they would have been ignominiously drummed out of the movement or worse.

Who knows how Withers got snared in Hoover's operations? Perhaps he could not have done otherwise and survived. But secret and continuing betrayal of the movement when things were so dicey is not easy to forgive, especially when so many others refused to betray us.

There is a wonderful photograph in "Pictures Don't Lie" of black journalists hanging from the rear of a truck platform, cameras dangling as they covered a movement milestone. In the foreground of those photographers is McCann Reid, a Memphian who, like Withers, covered numerous civil rights battles for the black press.

Reid and scores of other black journalists had unblemished records of professionalism. These men traveled across the South revealing to the world, through the lenses of their cameras, the hate and violence of racism.

There were courageous reporters such as Simeon Booker of Jet magazine, Thaddeus Stokes of the Memphis World and L. Alex Wilson of the Memphis Tri-State Defender. Wilson was brutally attacked by mobs in Little Rock in 1957. These journalists stayed the course, and I salute them. We must keep them in mind in our assessment of Withers' continual betrayal of our movement.

Andrew Young and some Memphis leaders seem to forgive or excuse Withers' role as a paid FBI informant. They say the information Withers would have given was harmless. How do they know?

Who is to say that some of the information he provided on people's plans, activities and movements may not have been passed on by an unsympathetic agent to more lawless sources bent on doing movement organizers physical harm? Because we do not know how much he said or how far that information went, any of us could have been, and perhaps some even were, compromised. We do not know how many beatings his betrayals generated or how many arrests they caused.

Withers allegedly gave the FBI names and license plate numbers on people attending meetings. In my own FBI file, there is a note about my attendance at a political meeting one night in Memphis when the informant also supplied license plate numbers of those attending the meeting. Was that Withers?

If Withers were alive today to explain himself, perhaps we might think differently of him. Perhaps we might even forgive him. But somehow I don't think so. This is one too far, even for the brilliant Withers and his catalog of inspiring images. They all seem a bit flat now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of D'Army Bailey.