'Bluff City' Captures Photographer Ernest Withers During Civil Rights Movement

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the most celebrated photos of the American civil rights movement shows African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, March 28, 1968, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, holding aloft signs that say, I am a man. It makes that moment an emblem of the struggle for equal rights.

The photo was taken by Ernest Withers, a local photographer of worldwide reputation. It captured a new addition to what was already a six-week-old strike - the sticks to which marchers had attached their signs. Those sticks were turned into weapons that day.

Preston Lauterbach's new book reveals details about how Ernest Withers may have figured into events that day. It's called "Bluff City." And Preston Lauterbach joins us from the studios of WVTF in Charlottesville, Va. Thanks so much for being with us.

PRESTON LAUTERBACH: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: We look at that photo today. What else should we know?

LAUTERBACH: The story that's hidden in that iconic image is that of the man behind the camera. And that is Ernest Withers, as you mentioned, who was not only the intrepid photographer of the civil rights movement down South but also an undercover operative for the FBI.

In an interview that he did with a German sociologist who'd come to Memphis studying the strike in the year 1981, Withers remarked, if anybody started that riot, I started that riot because it was me who went and rented the skill saw and sawed up the lumber and distributed those - the sticks to the marchers that day.

SIMON: So to try and encapsulate it, the sticks that were used as baseball bats that fomented the violence that brought Dr. King back to Memphis in chagrin a week later, where he was assassinated - those sticks were bought by Ernest Withers, a photographer who was an FBI informant.

LAUTERBACH: That is true. But you also have to keep in mind that he was involved with the Community on the Move for Equality organization. That was a nonviolent organization that was behind the strike. It was the No. 1 strike support organization.

And so, look; I mean, this is the crux of this mystery of, who was this man, and what was he doing? Where were his loyalties? And the truth is it's still a mystery.

SIMON: How did he become an FBI informant?

LAUTERBACH: Compared to law enforcement officers like Bull Connor down South, the feds were the only game in town in terms of getting any government support for the civil rights movement. And so Withers - he adopted the more conservative strategy - NAACP strategy of challenging segregation. And any time he saw individuals, organizations who were ultimately pro-civil rights but with whose tactics he didn't agree, he would discuss that with the FBI. He - I'm...

SIMON: But you do suggest in the book that the FBI had a stated interest in this march in Memphis devolving into violence. It was that violence that brought Dr. King back to Memphis, where he was ultimately assassinated.

LAUTERBACH: The problem that the FBI and the feds would've had with King at that particular moment in the spring of 1968 was his proposed Poor People's Campaign. That would be another mass march on Washington. Everybody in Congress on up to the president was very concerned about this. And, look; people are going to wonder about the FBI. And people have always wondered about the FBI and King's assassination. And...

SIMON: I wasn't suggesting that the FBI was somehow behind James Earl Ray. I was suggesting, as I believe you do in the book, that the FBI had an interest in discrediting Dr. King's leadership, and a march that devolved into violence would help do that.

LAUTERBACH: It was perfect. It was exactly what the FBI needed at that particular time. There was a FBI strategy that was circulated, that's very much on the record in the spring of '68, designed to discredit King as a leader - as a nonviolent leader. And what could be a better way of discrediting this man as a nonviolent leader than to show an episode of mass violence that he was at the center of.

SIMON: And you spent some time with Ernest Withers' daughter. She's both proud of her father and loved him. But these revelations have been hard for her, I gather.

LAUTERBACH: No question about it. She didn't know about any of this. And for it to come out after his death was quite a shock to her. But she also knew him. And she knew who he really was. And so her faith is always going to be with him. This was who Withers was. This is a man who risked his life, who endured beatings and arrests covering the movement down South as a photographer.

SIMON: Should any of these revelations change the way we reckon Ernest Withers in history? Should we regard him as part of the civil rights movement?

LAUTERBACH: You can't - I'll tell you this. His credo was the pictures tell the story. And so if you look at the pictures of Emmett Till's uncle, you know, standing up in a courtroom in Mississippi to point out his nephew's abductors and murderers, if you look at the photograph of Dr. King riding at the front of the first integrated bus in Montgomery, Ala., if you look at the photographs of people celebrating their newly won right to vote, if you look at the photograph of Myrlie Evers - the touching image of her at her husband Medgar Evers' funeral mourning his loss - I mean, it is one of the most touching images of the movement. Ernest Withers made these contributions. You can't take that away from him.

And I guess I don't - being around Memphis, as I was, and being around some of the characters that I've been around, Withers is a Memphis man. You know, the people on Beale Street, going back to the South's first black millionaire who built his fortune there - you know, they deal on both sides of the street. Corruption and good works go hand in hand down Beale Street.

SIMON: Preston Lauterbach - his new book, "Bluff City: The Secret Life Of Photographer Ernest Withers." Thanks so much for being with us.

LAUTERBACH: Thank you for having me.

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