Skip to main content

Newspaper lawsuit yields FBI records from civil rights-era informant

By Carol Cratty, CNN Senior Producer
updated 7:29 PM EST, Mon February 25, 2013
Photographer Ernest Withers stands in front of his photographs at an exhibit at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2003.
Photographer Ernest Withers stands in front of his photographs at an exhibit at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2003.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Photographer Ernest Withers worked for the FBI from 1958 to 1972
  • A Memphis newspaper sued the FBI for access to Withers' photos, documents
  • Withers gathered information on Martin Luther King, civil rights groups

Washington (CNN) -- The FBI has agreed to release portions of its files concerning civil rights-era photographer Ernest Withers' work for the agency as a secret informant to settle a lawsuit, according to representatives of the Memphis, Tennessee, newspaper The Commercial Appeal.

Charles Tobin, a lawyer representing the paper, which filed the suit, told CNN the agreement calls for the release of 70 investigative files in which Withers was involved. He said a reporter for The Commercial Appeal will choose the case records the newspaper wants to see from a list. The files will include photographs and documents. Tobin also said the settlement calls for the Justice Department to pay $186,000 in legal fees incurred by the newspaper since filing suit.

In an article published Monday, The Commercial Appeal said the 70 case files would include the FBI's investigation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in Memphis in 1968 and examinations of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and peace and black power movements. The newspaper said Withers worked as an FBI informant from 1958 to 1972.

The newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI in 2010 seeking the materials and dropped the action Monday after a settlement was reached. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the suit had ended but would not provide details of the settlement.

The agreement calls for the FBI to provide the files to the National Archives and Records Administration, which will then make public portions of the materials over the next two years. It was not clear how quickly the first files would be made public.

According to Tobin, the FBI will not be required to release Withers' actual informant file but will include information Withers gathered. Withers' informant file would have information on how much Withers was paid by the FBI and likely would have instructions given to Withers about which civil rights activists the agency wanted him to gather information on.

"This is a tremendous victory for the public's right to know about what the government was up to," said Tobin.

Chris Peck, editor of The Commercial Appeal, told CNN when the newspaper first reported Withers worked for the FBI, it was a "bombshell" because he was a well-respected and trusted figure in the civil rights movement.

Withers covered the trial of the men accused of killing black teenager Emmett Till for reportedly whistling at a white woman. He covered the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, marches led by King and King's funeral.

Withers died in 2007 at age 85.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT