Ernest Withers’ reports on Martin Luther King went to COINTELPRO command
September 22nd, 2010 8:32 pm ET
By Michael Richardson, COINTELPRO Examiner
..The revelation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal that acclaimed photographer Ernest Withers was an informant on the civil rights movement to the Memphis office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has put COINTELPRO back in the news.
Operation COINTELPRO was a vast, illegal and clandestine program ordered by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to “disrupt” political activity that Hoover felt undesirable. Spanning a number of years and targeting thousands of individuals and groups nationwide, COINTELPRO came to dominate FBI priorities in the 1960’s as Hoover stepped up his own private war on American citizens engaged in political activity.
Hoover felt the growing black power movement was America’s most serious domestic threat and targeted its leaders including Martin Luther King. Although King preached non-violence, King’s high profile made him a COINTELPRO target and the subject of close surveillance and counter-intelligence plots.
Withers’ reputation will forever be marred by his stint from 1968 to 1970 as a COINTELPRO informant and his new exposure as an extortionist and influence-peddler. As a state employee Withers pled guilty to extortion of $8,500 from a bar owner. Withers was also fired as a local policeman and narrowly escaped prosecution for attempting to arrange cash-for-freedom deals for prisoners.
Withers’ Beale Street photography studio put him in the center of Memphis black life and he became a human institution in the community. Working the nightclubs after dark and his photo studio by day, Withers dropped everything else when a civil rights event needed recording.
Withers reported to the Memphis FBI agent in charge of local COINTELPRO duties, William Lawrence. There is no evidence that Withers was aware of the secret COINTELPRO mandate or that he talked with anyone else higher in the FBI chain of command. However, Withers’ reports were studied closely at the highest level in Washington, D.C.
Although J. Edgar Hoover commanded daily operations in FBI headquarters which he called the “Seat of Government” and read many of the reports sent to him from around the nation, Hoover’s initials are absent from Withers’ reports. Instead, Hoover relied on a directorate to make summaries and brief him on developments in cities and groups he was interested in.
Two names that do appear on the secret COINTRELPRO reports from Memphis are William Sullivan and George Moore, who both show up on distribution lists and initialed or signed the reports indicating they had read and approved them.
Sullivan, long the third in command of the FBI, was chief architect of COINTELPRO while Moore headed the “Racial Intelligence” unit of COINTELPRO. Both men despised King, as did Hoover, and they followed information supplied by Withers closely.
Hoover first ordered wiretaps and hidden microphones on King in the late 1950’s on the premise that King was a suspected Communist agent. Hoover later ended the bugging of King when he became concerned of exposure. Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, ordered the next round of secret monitoring of King to keep tabs on the civil rights movement.
Sullivan, on his own initiative, would order a third round of eavesdropping on King in the mid-1960’s for political intelligence. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech outraged Sullivan who wrote to Hoover that King was “demagogic”.
Sullivan advised Hoover, “We must mark [King] now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation…..it may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony in court or before Congressional Committees.”
In December of 1963 Sullivan convened a headquarters meeting of various FBI offices about the investigation of King. Sullivan told the assembled agents that King was “unfit” and declared, “We must continue to keep close watch on King’s personal activities.”
After King was named “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine, Sullivan gave his own “trespass” order and arranged for the installation of microphones in King’s hotel rooms. Sullivan began an aggressive bugging program sending FBI sound teams and “black-bag” experts around the country as King traveled.
Sullivan wrote a memo presaging the anonymous letter advising King to commit suicide he is also presumed to have authored.
“We will at the proper time when it can be done without embarrassment to the Bureau, expose King as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for his own personal gain.”
During the time Withers was providing information to Lawrence, Moore and Sullivan were using the secret reports in their campaign against King--even after King’s 1968 assassination. Withers passed on information that he gleaned while attending King’s funeral.
In January 1969, Moore sent Sullivan a memo warning of a move to make King’s birthday a national holiday. Moore urged Sullivan to have material ready from the hotel room tapes to play for the incoming Nixon administration in an effort to stop the new national holiday.
Sullivan passed on Moore’s suggestion to Hoover and on January 23, 1969, just three days in after Nixon’s inauguration, Hoover sent the Attorney General designee, John Mitchell, a Top Secret memo.
“In view of this [national holiday plans] there is enclosed a document regarding the communist influence on King during his career and information regarding King’s highly immoral personal behavior. For your information, a copy of this document is also being furnished to the President.”