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Pictures Don't Lie
Aired February 20, 2011 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Photographer Ernest Withers was the ultimate insider. You may not know his name, but you definitely know his photographs.
ANDREW YOUNG, FORMER AIDE TO MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Anything he wanted to do, anybody he wanted to shoot was glad.
O'BRIEN: He snapped Martin Luther King Jr. on the first desegregated bus in Montgomery. The Little Rock Nine on their first day of school.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was actually in the spots taking the photography, shooting the shots, and he tells the story through his photography. So to me that is an invaluable piece of history that we would never have had were it not for Ernest Withers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Withers was at every major civil rights event within the whole Mid-south territory within striking distance of Memphis year after year after year.
O'BRIEN: But now the man called the "original civil rights photographer" is being called something else, a snitch.
DICK GREGORY, FORMER COMEDIAN: It's worse than being a gangster.
THEODORE JACKSON, FORMER FULTON COUNTY SHERIFF: Anybody cooperated with the law enforcement was considered a snitch. People disowned them because of it.
O'BRIEN: A stunning accusation, charges that Ernest Withers had worked as an informant getting money from the FBI to report on the civil rights movement.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It felt piercing. He wasn't that kind of person.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How would you like somebody to say you were a snitch, you were a paid informant and you're not even here to defend yourself?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was out covering his community. That was his mission to him.
O'BRIEN: The Withers' children, Billy, Rome and Rosalind were devastated.
Just three years earlier, their father was celebrated as a hero at his funeral.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now that's when I realized Memphis loved him.
O'BRIEN (on camera): You didn't know that before?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It took my breath away. We were watching the news and they actually covered his funeral all day. The activities about who he was as a man and what was really profound was that President Bush was in town, and my father made the front page and Bush did not. That was pretty profound.
O'BRIEN: The children were planning the Ernest Withers Museum and Gallery on Beale Street in Memphis to honor their father's memory. But now --
(On camera): You called Ernest Withers a black Judas. What's that mean?
GREGORY: They give black a bad name. I'm sorry I said that about -- black is better than that.
O'BRIEN: So just Judas.
GREGORY: Judas, yes.
O'BRIEN: You think he was Judas?
GREGORY: He's beyond Judas.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some people are on the side of, I can't believe he'd do such a thing. How could he do it? We trusted him. We told him everything. We shared our lives. He came into our family. He took our pictures. He took pictures of our daddy in the casket.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): At the heart of the scandal, never before seen in public and heavily redacted FBI documents on investigations in Memphis before and after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Hundreds of pages long and hard to decipher, but one document, one page, one little phrase mistakenly left un-redacted exposed the stunning 40- year-old secret that Ernest Withers had taken to the grave.
There it was in black and white. Ernest Columbus Withers, formerly designated ME 338-R. ME code for FBI code for Memphis and R the code for racial informant.
DAVID GARROW, AUTHOR: There is no doubt whatsoever the available documentary evidence which include both Mr. Withers' name and his informant coding number matches up with dozens of FBI documents. The documentary evidence on this nails it 100 percent. Case closed.
O'BRIEN: But not for his colleagues in the civil rights movement.
REVEREND BILLY KILES, FORMER FRIEND: It doesn't have a ring of authenticity to it.
SUHKARA YAHWEH, FORMER LEADER, THE INVADERS: Well, here they go again. The FBI is up to their old games again.
O'BRIEN: Not for his friends.
(On camera): You ever see him talk to the FBI, meet with the FBI?
JOSEPH CRITTENDEN, FORMER FRIEND: I never did, I never did.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): And not for his family. Especially not his family.
(On camera): Was he betraying the civil rights movement?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): No one wanted to believe it, but the FBI documents told a damning story. On February 28th, 1968, source ME 338-R, Withers, tells an FBI agent that a highly respected minister in the black community is domineering, has a violent temper and is not sincere in wanting to help the Negro race.
Three months later the same source gives the FBI photos of a black clerk in the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Office. He identifies the woman as a rumormonger who would give aid and comfort to the militant black power groups the FBI had under surveillance.
GARROW: As the FBI across the course of the 1960s became more and more fearful of black activism, the pressure on the local FBI agents to recruit black informants ramped up significantly.
O'BRIEN: The truth began to sink in. To the FBI Withers was a resource, a secret weapon.
YOUNG: Ernest Withers was given a regular salary by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or somebody to give regular reports on what we were doing.
EARL CALDWELL, FORMERLY WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES: There was massive, massive spying going on and there was tremendous pressure on all kinds of people to be a participant in that.
O'BRIEN: As the legacy Ernest Withers built photo by photo was shattering --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's more a burden for his children.
O'BRIEN (on camera): For you guys.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Than it is for him. Because of the fact that he's not here to defend himself.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Painful questions were piling up.
CALDWELL: How was it that Ernest got trapped up in something that we all said we will not do this? This is a line we will not cross. How did Ernest get on the other side of that?
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Ernest Withers' life as a photographer began not with a lofty shot of a civil rights icon. But a paparazzi shot. Of a bombshell.
At the time heavyweight boxing champ Joe Lewis was the most famous black celebrity in the world. And his wife Marva was famously beautiful.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was speaking to the high school and my father was bold enough to go up to the front and get a close-up shot of Marva Lewis.
O'BRIEN: Ernest Withers had the instincts. But it wasn't until he enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained in the photo lab that he truly developed the skills.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's always told us that that's how he really knew that he can earn a living as a photographer.
O'BRIEN (on camera): He made money at it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
O'BRIEN: In the army.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Matter of fact, he came back with a lot of money, you know, at that time and that sort of gave him the inspiration to pursue it as a career. That say, you know, as the time the Army was segregated, and then all the white soldiers would come and they would line up and the CO said, is this -- you got some drills over here? For what? They all would come and get their pictures made to send back to -- back home.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Back in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, the side hustle grew into a fledgling but full time photo business.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The most times you could see be with daddy was at the studio.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He worked 24/7. Whatever activity was going on, he was there.
O'BRIEN: Withers had no shortage of clients. But his clients often had a shortage of funds.
Reverend Billy Kiles, a friend of the movement and of Ernest Withers, witnessed the constant struggle to make ends meet.
KILES: Sometimes he would be paid. Sometimes he wouldn't. He'd give you a package with photographs in it and then he'd slip in a bill, but he never made an issue of money.
O'BRIEN: But by then he and his high school sweetheart Dorothy had eight children to feed and clothe. In 1948, a new and steady source of income came just in time. Withers was hired as one of the first African-Americans in the Memphis Police Department.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was one of the first actually to drive -- African-American to drive a police car and there was only two who were given that car and it was only because nobody else had a license.
O'BRIEN: After a few years on the force, Ernest Withers returned to photography, just in time to witness and document a flash point in history.
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten to death and thrown in a river for whistling at a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store. Gruesome details of the lynching enraged the black community.
A photo of the young boy's bloated, mutilated corpse so haunted Withers that he vowed to be in the courtroom every day for the trial of the two white men accused of the murder.
Withers shot the defendants, the witnesses, the all-white jury. He even self-published and sold a pamphlet about the case. Bold moves for a black man in the south.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think he was never worried because he was not a person who lived in fear. I think the purpose and the mission of it was more important than the fear of it.
O'BRIEN: Joseph Crittenden remembers those dangerous days. He operated a small business by day and fought for freedom alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. by night. He often made the long drive to and from the courtroom with Ernest Withers.
CRITTENDEN: We met three cars coming. They knew that truckers had prison service station on it. I passed by them. They turn around and I look bad and I said, Ernest, he said, what, I said look. He said, get on it, I stepped that thing up to 190. They were going to kill us. We wouldn't have made it if I hadn't have did that.
They didn't want us down there because Ernie was snapping them pictures and come back, you see, and people would see what was going on down there. More pictures that Ernest snapped and come back and people see them, that make more people take a part of the movement.
Them white folk had noted we were down there they would have killed us.
O'BRIEN: As Withers confidence as a photojournalist grew, he cut his ties to law enforcement. Or so everybody thought.
CALDWELL: Maybe Ernest was in the same type of situation I was in. They put their foot on me and said you're going to do this or we're going to put you in a position where you may get killed.
MAXINE SMITH, NAACP HEAD IN MEMPHIS: Well, it was sort of a war zone. It was at the advent of the '60s.
KILES: I moved to Memphis from Chicago in 1959, almost '60, and Memphis was much like all the cities its size in the south. My brothers said to me, don't you know that Chicago is the Promised Land for black people? Why are you going back to Egypt, Memphis.
CRITTENDEN: It was rough.
O'BRIEN (on camera): How?
CRITTENDEN: If you was black you had to get over in the corner somewhere. It was rough. It was dangerous for black folks. It was dangerous for black folks.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Worst of all, some of the men who supposed to protect and serve had other ideas.
(On camera): Was there a difference between the local police and the FBI?
GREGORY: They were all the same. They was cousins. That's what made it scary.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Never one to mince words comedian Dick Gregory is famous for his raw confrontational stand-up act and for his conviction to stand up for civil rights.
GREGORY: Can you imagine living in a society as somebody kidnapped or killed your child or your mother, you can't call the police? Because they're part of it? That's what that atmosphere was like down there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When we began to see the different atrocities, because one thing was part of the weekly routine, lawyers would call up on the Monday to take pictures of all the people who had been cut and beaten by the police.
O'BRIEN (on camera): And that was your dad's job to take those pictures.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, yes, that was one of his large accounts.
KILES: The way we were treated by white people with the endorsement of sheriffs and police and everybody else was some terrible times.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Through one lens Memphis, and much of the American south, was a frightening place to be. But through another lens, the lens belonging to budding photojournalist Ernest Withers, it also could be exhilarating, exciting, inspiring.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think that he had the impression at the time that he was taking this for preservation of history. But he had a sense of the purpose and importance of what he was doing.
CALDWELL: If you look at his work, one of the things he a feel for was the little guy, the poor guy that's working hard. He had a way of being able to photograph someone's face. It was almost like you were looking at the person's hands or something because you could see how hard they -- their lives had been and it was in their faces.
O'BRIEN: In 1960, black sharecroppers in Fayette County, Tennessee, were being evicted from their homes for registering to vote. Tent City was an emergency camp set up on donated land for those people who suddenly found themselves with no food, no shelter, nowhere to turn.
Withers rushed there with the only aid he had, his camera.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were literally tents, and they were starving for money to try to support this effort. And that was a sense of mission to him. I can remember him calling all the different editors and reporters around the country. He literally called --
O'BRIEN (on camera): To pitch the story.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. That's what he would do on numerous occasions when he felt that it was something that really needed to be exposed.
SMITH: The movement started, and you could always see Ernest there as a vital partner, only just a -- not a visitor but you could tell he was totally involved in what was going on.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): The same could be said for Maxine Smith. As the head of the NAACP in Memphis she too was a vital part of the movement and totally involved.
SMITH: We didn't see our pictures in history books. What we saw was white folk and we knew we were there doing something and I think we had a very, very important role in the forming of the history of our country and I'm proud of that, and Ernest Withers was everywhere recording my history, the history of the movement.
O'BRIEN: The key to being everywhere was access. Access to the leaders and decision makers, access to the regular folks who showed up for marches and protests, access to the venues where everything was taking place.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can see the faces of both sides looking for that judge to make a ruling and what a powerful photograph that was too and look at where he had to have been in a particular spot to have gotten an image like that.
O'BRIEN (on camera): How did he get that shot? He was behind the judge's head.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's exactly how he was.
O'BRIEN: That's a true sign of how entrenched he was.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
SMITH: We were quite comfortable with his presence. Because he was part of us. He was just one of the fighters.
YOUNG: He had all the access he wanted. O'BRIEN (voice-over): Andrew Young understands the benefits of access better than most. He was a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., went on to become mayor of Atlanta, a member of Congress and the first black U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
(On camera): Do you remember when you first met Ernest Withers?
YOUNG: Yes, I remember Ernest Withers as a lot of fun and any time you went to Memphis, he was with us and we laughed together. We joked together, and he was sort of one of the family.
If he'd asked to come in could he take a picture of this meeting, he would have been welcome. We were trying to get the story out. The national news and "Jet" and occasionally the international news was basically what was needed to bring about change.
And Dr. King said often we have to take these evils and put them before the court of world opinion.
O'BRIEN: So the movement wouldn't have been the movement without the picture.
YOUNG: It wouldn't have been the movement without the pictures. You have to remember that in those days, in the early '60s, we got no attention, no publicity, and basically he was the guy who was photographing for "Jet" and he got pictures with -- of Martin in his bedroom. His pictures tell how well he was appreciated and how well he was accepted.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Appreciated and accepted, but still not well paid.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of his images were, you know, given credit to like "TIME," "Life" and all of those magazines, they took credit for themselves but those were his images. You know, a lot of times he didn't get paid for the images that he may have sent.
O'BRIEN: Decades later former colleagues would wonder if those long- ago financial sacrifices led Ernest Withers to take money from the FBI in exchange for information.
CALDWELL: Because he was one of these people that was grinding out a living.
O'BRIEN: But in the 1960s while the movement was rising to its peak, Ernest Withers was above suspicion. He enjoyed a singular spot at the top of the black media elite.
(On camera): So he was a point person in the community?
YOUNG: With the press. The press, there was community, they was used to him, you know, his taking pictures and all of this and there's no -- like I say, nobody suspected him.
CALDWELL: And one of the things that the black journalist did in that time, we made just a little pact with each other. You come to my town and you look me up and I'll give you everything you need. I'll take care of you. I'll show you around. I'll introduce you to -- which is a huge thing. And that was the way it was with Memphis because Ernest was Memphis.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How would I say, if you would Google -- if you had to Google something, he was that.
O'BRIEN (on camera): He was Google.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. And because he was resourceful. He knew everybody.
GARROW: He was the African-American civil rights photographer of those decades in that whole part of the south and he was a friendly personable individual, so he had entree, entree as a friendly professional that really exceeded that of any other journalist, black or white.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): That gift of access would eventually become a curse landing Ernest Withers right in the crosshairs of the FBI.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 200,000 people converged on the nation's capital to rally for civil rights.
GREGORY: Yes, I really learned what life was about watching not the thugs, not the Klan and folk call you nigger this and nigger that, watching the folks that's willing to die with no guns. They would come to those rallies like a child running to give them some M&Ms.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): The decade that began with a mass display of calm and peaceful mobilization ended with a fearsome display of rage and disorder.
CALDWELL: There was no greater story than the story of race in America. The exploding story of race.
O'BRIEN: In Detroit, in Newark, New Jersey, in Los Angeles.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More than 100 square blocks were decimated by fire and looters.
O'BRIEN: As a recent hire with "The New York Times," Earl Caldwell got the key assignment. He was young but he had something his older colleagues didn't.
CALDWELL: I'd begin to notice the most incredible thing, black people in these rooms would say, white reporters out. White reporters say, you can't make us go, we represent the -- white reporters out, and sometimes the white reporters wouldn't go and they physically threw them out.
O'BRIEN: Civil rights historian David Garrow wrote a book on the FBI's obsession with Martin Luther King Jr. He says being white was suddenly shifting from an asset to a liability in some government circles, too.
GARROW: That's for the very simple reason that within certainly urban areas with a heavy degree of racial segregation in residences, in commercial districts, you simply need African-American people physically present if you're going to learn anything representing inside information.
O'BRIEN: In order to understand, describe, control or even thwart what was going on, having black informants was key.
GARROW: In the J. Edgar Hoover era, the FBI actually did relatively little wiretapping because it was so expensive in terms of human time. To monitor a wiretap like the one they had on Dr. King's office, on Dr. King's advisers, required 24/7 coverage and required someone to have to listen to the tape-recordings or, you know, be there second by second to take notes.
O'BRIEN: The perfect informant would be someone good with names and faces. Someone who could get inside both large community meetings and small strategy sessions.
In Memphis, Tennessee, that someone was photographer Ernest Withers.
GARROW: As an established universally known photojournalist, everyone expected him to be everywhere.
O'BRIEN: Theodore Jackson is the sheriff of Fulton County in Georgia, but he began his career as an FBI agent in Memphis.
JACKSON: In the '60s, '63, '68 in order to keep the uprising in the neighborhoods down or keep track of what was going on in the neighborhood, there were ghetto informants.
O'BRIEN: The Ghetto Informant Program was an actual initiative set up by the FBI. It ran from 1967 through 1973.
JACKSON: They were just people that you'd go out and talk to and just make sure there are no issues going on in the neighborhood.
O'BRIEN: Withers was considered one of the 7,000 members of the Ghetto Informant Program. As part of his duty he provided the FBI things like copies of newsletters, photos of suspected militants, car tag numbers and home addresses.
JACKSON: You had to do it at least once within a 45-day period and the conversations would go -- you know, you'd say is there anything in the neighborhood that you want to bring to my attention? Is it quiet? Are there any issues?
GARROW: It's better than having a hidden microphone.
O'BRIEN: As the national discourse of the civil rights movement shifted from nonviolence to more militant groups like the Black Panthers, the FBI's intelligence-gathering efforts escalated.
Suhkara Yahweh, used to be known as "Sweet Willie Wine Watson." He was the leader of a group of young black men who called themselves "The Invaders."
YAHWEH: We were a type of Black Panther.
O'BRIEN (on camera): You were leverage.
YAHWEH: Right. Right.
O'BRIEN: You were pressure. You were intimidation.
YAHWEH: That's right. That's right.
O'BRIEN: You had guns?
YAHWEH: Yes. We had guns.
O'BRIEN: You did violent acts.
YAHWEH: We police our own community. That's what we did. We police our community.
O'BRIEN: Were people afraid of the Invaders? Or do they welcome the Invaders?
YAHWEH: No. No. No, they were not afraid of them. They loved the Invaders. If you know something -- a dog will bite you, you don't go and agitate the dog.
O'BRIEN: And you guys were the dog that would bite.
YAHWEH: If you made us the dogs, we would become the dogs. We would do whatever was needed to deal with the situation.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): As the local FBI in Memphis used Withers to get information on the Invaders, black journalists across the country were also being approached.
CALDWELL: They would come to you and say, we need to know certain things. We want you to cooperate with us and as a matter of fact sometimes they would be asking you to do something and it would be like this is your duty as an American. To help us.
And it was always made out to be so harmless that, listen, we don't want you breaking any confidences. You don't -- just tell us this or what you can do and, no, no, we'll meet you.
O'BRIEN: Sometimes it was gentle persuasion. Other times it was outright intimidation.
CALDWELL: They were the Black Panthers. When I wouldn't become an undercover agent -- informant for them, they did something to me that I thought was -- well, they could have gotten me killed because they said if you don't do this, then we're going to bring you before a federal grand jury investigating the Black Panthers and you're going to be in a very difficult situation.
In other words, we're going to put you in a situation that makes it appear as though you had been working for us all along.
O'BRIEN: Seventy black journalists decided to band together and take a very public stand.
CALDWELL: We said we will not be used as spies, informants or undercover agents by anybody. We strongly object to attempts by law enforcement agencies to exploit our blackness.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): By April 3rd, 1968, black sanitation workers in Memphis had been off the job for more than 50 days. They were on strike. Protesting dangerous working conditions and unequal pay.
Ernest Withers covered the whole thing.
KILES: Being a photojournalist too, he realized the importance of a record, keeping a record.
O'BRIEN: He also took a photograph of the workers lined up with placards that declared their manhood and demanded respect. It would be one of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to support the workers, but a rally he had led erupted in violence. With broken windows, teargas, beatings.
SMITH: It was down there shooting those tanks when they were riding down Memphis and -- the world needed to see. I mean we looked like we were at war.
O'BRIEN: Less than 24 hours later, a sniper's bullet would silence the leader of the civil rights movement.
Ernest Withers who photographed Dr. King for more than a decade wasn't at the Lorraine Motel when the fatal shot was fired. But the famous photo of Dr. King's aides pointing in the direction of the shooter was developed in his lab.
Withers rushed to the scene right afterwards in time to capture the shock, grief and devastation of the people left behind.
(On camera): Why would your father not take pictures of Dr. King as he lay there dead? He could have.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
O'BRIEN: He was the first photographer --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, he just said, hey, he was too beautiful a man to do that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He could have taken an image of him with his head completely blown off but he refused to do that. Because this was a man that represented a nation of people and he did not want him to be remembered that way. He demanded that they dress him before he took a photo and that photo that he took was the image that went throughout the entire nation and the world after his death.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): In Memphis, a militant group called the Invaders stepped in to fill the gaping void suddenly left by Dr. King. They shared his desire for black equality, but not his strategy.
YAHWEH: They would embrace violence as a method of getting things done.
O'BRIEN (on camera): So it was more Malcolm than MLK.
YAHWEH: Oh, yes, much more Malcolm than MLK but they loved MLK. They loved Dr. King. They said, well, if you're going to kill a man who, in fact, is preaching love then what other choice do we have? So that became a natural thing for the violence to come about.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): The violence in the streets wasn't confined to the rioters.
SMITH: They put them in positions where I saw I saw his head get beat pretty good one time. He had no fear in what he was doing, you know, people in the media often are beat on because nobody wants that recorded.
O'BRIEN: Tensions and tempers were on the rise. Withers continued to feed information to his FBI handler.
But Andrew Young says double agents were a waste of time.
(On camera): Did you worry about informants?
YOUNG: No, we didn't think of informants. We didn't care about informants.
O'BRIEN: At all? You didn't care.
YOUNG: We were informants.
O'BRIEN: What do you mean?
YOUNG: Our lawyers instructed us. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said the day before a demonstration, you need to write out what you're going to do and send it in a telegram to the FBI and the Justice Department.
O'BRIEN: Let them know ahead of time.
YOUNG: Let them know ahead of time.
YOUNG: That made it civil disobedience. Uncivil disobedience is to sneak around and do something and try to get around the law. We were not trying to get around America's laws. We were trying to challenge and fulfill the Constitution of the United States.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): And he says having FBI agents sniffing around was better than the alternative.
SMITH: Due to the way of life, most blacks were just either in complete fear of police officers or hated them because of the abuse they inflicted against us. The FBI was always around us, in and out of our offices. Police were beating our heads so badly, we were glad to see them.
YOUNG: We saw the FBI as a government agency.
O'BRIEN (on camera): You weren't afraid of them?
YOUNG: No, we were more comfortable having the FBI there because it was a restraint on the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, down in St. Augustine where I got beat up, the sheriff had deputized the Ku Klux Klan and they all had badges.
O'BRIEN: Did it put people at risk that someone was snitching?
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Ernest Withers spent decades building an unparalleled legacy with his extensive collection of photos. But that legacy and his personal reputation was crumbling under the heavy weight of news that he had worked as an FBI informant.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the biggest thing is now there's a sad story now you go to the computer, you Google Ernest Withers, now you come up with the word FBI informant. History has been revised.
CRITTENDEN: It kind of hurts me when somebody comes to me and said my friend was a snitch, you know? That's what --
O'BRIEN (on camera): People said that to you, your friend was a snitch?
CRITTENDEN: Yes, I think --
O'BRIEN: They did?
CRITTENDEN: I've had some of them said it. I tell them, I tell them. I look right at them and say you know what I don't believe it and I'm about to wait for God to show me and if he did, I would see before I leave here.
O'BRIEN: Does it make a difference if he was?
CRITTENDEN: If he was that kind of person, then I would say he wasn't a man I thought he was.
GREGORY: This man is dangerous. He was all over the place. If he would have walked up to me and said, Dick, I was on my way up to King's room and he wanted me to leave this package, and my daughter got hit by a car, would you take this up, I would have no problem. O'BRIEN: You would have done anything for him.
O'BRIEN: Because you were friends.
GREGORY: Not just friends, just I wouldn't suspect him of doing anything wrong.
O'BRIEN: You never suspected.
GREGORY: Never. No one did.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Former Memphis FBI agent Theodore Jackson says the Ghetto Informant Program was different than the FBI's COINTELPRO, where the agency purposefully spread lies and gossip about black leaders to destabilize and undermine the movement.
JACKSON: And what he was doing was a civic duty. More people should do that. It's no more than neighborhood watch. Man, we call it neighborhood watch, but in his day, it wasn't called neighborhood watch.
O'BRIEN: Jackson says perhaps Ernest Withers saw this work as an extension of his previous work.
JACKSON: Military is public service. Law enforcement is public service so he continued in public service. I don't see the issue and he didn't do anything damaging to anybody.
SMITH: I have no idea and don't care. I don't think he was any more an informant than I was and I know I wasn't.
O'BRIEN: Maxine Smith, who used to head the Memphis NAACP, says both she and her husband, a dentist, were accused of being snitches.
SMITH: I always said you're products of your time. You're products of your time. And Ernest Withers had a wife and eight children to raise and we black folks didn't have a whole lot of money to pay for pictures.
O'BRIEN (on camera): What was the reaction?
YOUNG: Nothing. I was surprised but I wasn't upset. I mean, again, I said, well, I'm glad he made a little money because he wasn't making much on his pictures and he had a family to support. And I don't begrudge him taking my tax money to take pictures of us and make sure that the FBI had an accurate record.
O'BRIEN: Do you think it changes the value or the context of Ernest Withers' photographs knowing what we know today about him?
YOUNG: Not at all. He probably wouldn't have given any information that he thought was going to hurt the movement.
O'BRIEN: Why is there such a sense of betrayal among some people about what Ernest Withers did?
YOUNG: Because -- because people don't understand nonviolence. Part of our nonviolent discipline was to do it openly and transparently. There's no forgiveness necessary for Ernest Withers because he was working for the United States government. That's our government. I just wish he'd gotten a pension and it hadn't been in secret.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What I would simply say is that it makes me sad in some ways to understand or hear about the FBI but, you know, frankly, a lot of people didn't trust the FBI. When you look at COINTELPRO, when you look at the fact that they were really tracking the lives of African-Americans and others, Jewish people in this country, do you believe everything that the FBI says to you?
Certainly back in the '50s and '60s they were suspect so we all kind of looked with lowered eyes at the FBI and if you stack Mr. Withers up against the FBI, I think I'll take Mr. Withers.
KILES: I said something at his service, a drop of water maketh the hole in the stone, not by violence but by oft falling. Drip, drip, drip. That was Ernest. I (INAUDIBLE) fully.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Ernest Withers died in October of 2007 taking to his grave the full story. But his work remains.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The value in it is the historical record that he has left to really teach people from where we've come from. And what really happened and, you know, we could sit and we could tell people about something all day long, but if you're able to show it to them, the impact is a second.
SMITH: He's a part of the recording. They may have been making the history but he was recording history. And Ernest was that. God, you can tell a lie but you -- photos don't lie.