Civil Rights Photog and FBI Informer Is No Hero

Civil Rights Photog and FBI Informer Is No Hero

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 Yo, Teddy J., you’re gonna have to run that one by me again, partner.

If you don’t know who “Teddy J.” is, fear not. That’s what I’m here for: To inform.

These days Theodore “Teddy J.” Jackson is a sheriff in Fulton County, Georgia. But many years ago, back in the 1960s, he was one of the few black agents in the FBI. Jackson recently appeared on CNN's “Pictures Don’t Lie,” an autobiographical documentary about renowned civil rights photographer Ernest Withers.

If there’s a picture from the civil rights era that stands out in your mind, chances are Withers is the guy who snapped it. That famous photo of Martin Luther King Jr. riding in the front of the desegregated bus after the victory in the Montgomery bus boycott? Withers took it. Ever seen a photo from the trial of the men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955? Withers attended the trial and snapped shots of everything and everybody. When sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis in 1968, Withers photographed them too, and got pictures of King and his aides when they went to the city to help the strikers.

Last September, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal ran a story that no one saw coming: Withers, in addition to being a superb photographer who documented many civil rights movement events, was also a paid FBI informant. Withers’ role as an FBI informant was covered, at length, in that CNN documentary, which was hosted by Soledad O’Brien.

Toward the tail end of the documentary, Jackson gave this assessment of Withers’ work as an FBI informant:

“What (Withers) did was a civic duty. More people should do that. It’s no more than Neighborhood Watch; now we call it Neighborhood Watch. But in his day, it wasn’t called neighborhood watch ... I don’t see the issue.”

Fret not, Teddy J. I’m about to show you the issue. No, make that plural: Issues.

Issue number one: Neighborhood Watch is for law-abiding citizens who want to report crime in their neighborhoods. Did Withers confine his informing to crimes? Read these passages from the Commercial-Appeal story and judge for yourself:

“Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants.”

Anybody see evidence of a crime having been committed there? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

A memo to Jackson: Being a “black militant” wasn’t a crime in 1968, and it isn’t today. Neither is meeting with them. In what sense was Withers engaged in “Neighborhood Watch”?

Here’s another passage from the Commercial-Appeal:

“Withers focused on mainstream Memphians as well. Personal and professional details of Church of God in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson (then a pastor with a popular radio show), real estate agent O.W. Pickett, politician O.Z. Evers and others plumped FBI files as the bureau ran a secret war on militancy.

“When community leader Jerry Fanion took cigarettes to jailed Invaders (a black militant Memphis group), agents took note. Agents wrote reports when Catholic Father Charles Mahoney befriended an Invader, when car dealer John T. Fisher offered jobs to militants, when Rev. James Lawson planned a trip to Czechoslovakia and when a schoolteacher loaned his car to a suspected radical.”

No, can’t detect law breaking run amok in any of those passages either. Anybody get the feeling that Jackson’s been a cop way too long?

Here’s the coup de grace about the adverse impact Withers’ informing almost had on one Memphis woman:

“Records indicate (Withers) snapped and handed over photos of St. Patrick Catholic Church priests who supported the city’s striking sanitation workers; he monitored political candidates, jotted down auto tag numbers for agents and once turned over a picture of an employee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said to be ‘one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.’ In an interview this year, that worker said she came within a hearing of losing her job.”

Doesn’t sound like Neighborhood Watch to me. That sounds like someone informing for a government agency that sought to target citizens not for criminal conduct, but for their political beliefs. That’s the issue that makes what Withers did not his civic duty, but a shame. Which brings me to ...

Issue number two: Withers was supposed to be a journalist, for heaven’s sake! His job was to report on the FBI and, whenever warranted, expose the agency’s wrongdoing, not work for it. Jackson may like to think – and thought in 1968 – that the media exists to act as publicity agents for law enforcement. And, in truth, some media outlets were exactly that for the FBI in the 1960s and 1970s. But ideally, the relationship between the media and the government should be adversarial.

That might not work out so well for the government, but it works fine for us journalists. And even better for John Q. and Jane R. Citizen.
 

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