by John Burl Smith
Since the death of Ernest C. Withers, famed civil rights photographer from Memphis, there have been troubling admissions by the FBI in the media (The Commercial Appeal, 7/4/12) that he was one of their informants. For some, the admissions have seriously tarnished an otherwise exemplary legacy. However, the FBI still refused to admit that Withers was one of their Co-Intel-Pro operatives against the Invaders.
For outsiders, it is very difficult to understand how and why such an intrepid individual who continually risked his life to document the struggle for freedom, justice and equality waged by blacks in the South during the darkest day of the civil rights era, could stoop so low.
Looking back at those times with today's eyes, especially if one did not live during that time and experience the day-to-day pressures of survival – feeding one's family, escaping the grips of poverty and just trying to stay alive – makes it easy to view an individual harshly, totally unconcerned with the motives of those who bore such burdens.
Having lived through that period, not just as a bystander but as an activist who fully participated in the struggle to improve living conditions of black people, I helped organize the Invaders – one of the targets of Mr. Withers' so called treachery. The very harsh assessments heaped upon Mr. Withers runs counter to how those of us who empathize with his plight feel about his actions, because for us the pressures felt in those days were like being an occupied people during a war.
Powerless people make decisions based on what it takes for them and theirs to survive, and not always what is best for the whole. Many collaborate with the enemy, while at the same time, they inform the resistance about the plans of their occupier; this behavior has always been a part of the slave history of blacks in America.
It is impossible to create with words, the level of fear that existed during those times and simulate the courage, imagination and ingenuity required to play both sides of the fence, while trying to remain loyal to one side, as Mr. Withers undoubtedly did. His son, Wendell, was an Invader. It is the stuff of which novels and movies are made.
First, those reading or viewing such a narrative must understand who the bad guys are, as well as their motive – in this case the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover was in charge of the FBI and among other notorious things, he declared war on civil rights and black power groups and infamously tried to intimidate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., attempting to force him to resign from the leadership of the civil rights movement by blackmailing him with lured information sent to Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
Seeking authorization from Congress (1956) to set up a counter intelligence program (Co-Intel-Pro), Hoover described Dr. King as the "most dangerous man in America." Co-Intel-Pro was designed to "infiltrate, misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize or destroy black power and civil rights groups and their leaders." Its mandate allowed Hoover to use any means he desired, up to and including entrapment, coercion, intimidation, even targeted assassinations.
With such awesome power at its command, the FBI held the power of life and death over people like Mr. Withers and his family. Someone as powerless as Mr. Withers in the South could not simply say no to the FBI, especially when powerful leaders such as Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Billy Kyles and Maxine Smith freely admit today that they also informed the FBI about the civil rights movement.
Again, admissions today by such illustrious leaders that back then they were informants would not have been accepted simply as a means of protecting civil rights marchers or as harmless living room visits over drinks. Under the thumb of such a powerful and dastardly group as Co-Intel-Pro, Mr. Withers still found ways to document the struggles of black people and leave an inexhaustible depository of black history; for that he should be commended not continually maligned.
Tortured explanations today of why a black leader talked to the FBI and police have absolved some while others continue to be crucified, brings the discussion back to the Invaders – also a much maligned group of black power activists from this same period and city.
The Invaders first came to the attention of the Memphis public as individuals caught up in a police brutality incident over a gas cap at a gas station in the summer of 1967. Arrested along with Charles Cabbage, who had returned home from college in Atlanta sporting the regalia of black power and spouting its rhetoric as well, we were labeled public enemy number one in the media.
The mystique surrounding us and black power grew with local blacks when we began working for the local poverty organization (Map-South) and organized a street campaign for the first black man to run for mayor, A. W. Willis. As others joined us, I donned my old Army jacket with the word Invaders written across the back. However, once we joined with community groups supporting the striking Memphis Sanitation workers we became targets of the FBI.
The FBI began planting stories in the media about drug activity among Invaders. Along with the Memphis Police Department, the FBI identified people arrested for crimes such as robbery and burglary as Invaders in the media to create a negative image involved in criminality. Their informants infiltrated the group and caused dissension by enticing members to engage in acts against the police. The most notorious of which occurred during the sanitation workers march (3/28/68) led by Dr. King that ended in a riot for which the Invaders were blamed.
The misinformation campaign the FBI conducted against the Invaders, their efforts to destroy the reputation of individual members, the trumped up charges used to imprison some members and the FBI's steadfast refusal to release information about me and the Invaders, other than that related to so-called informants, calls into question the real motives behind the information released about Mr. Withers.
Unfortunately, Mr. Withers is not here to tell his side of the story, so what is said in the media by the FBI is accepted as gospel. I have used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request the FBI file on me, but the FBI has refused to release anything about its Co-Intel-Pro activities against me and the Invaders.
Fortunately, a group of young researchers from Memphis (Prichard Smith, J. B. Horrell and Chad Schaffler) who were documenting the events surrounding the sanitation strike, noticed glaring contradictions between information in the public record and the official version of Invader activities during and after the sanitation strike. Now, they are producing a documentary about the Invaders. Hoping to set the record straight, they are trying to get the truth out by interviewing a number of people – including me – who were original organizers of the Invaders, as well as policemen, politicians, preachers and everyday citizens that have unique perspectives on the events and time and who have never been interviewed on the subject.
Beyond researching archives and conducting interviews, they are reaching out to people who may have photographs, video footage, written material and even antidotal information that can be included in the documentary. Moreover, those of us involved in the project see it as an effort toward truth and reconciliation that can involve the entire Memphis community. Everyone should look back on that time – the sanitation strike – as a period when we all stood by and allowed the City of Memphis to treat black sanitation workers less than human beings and did nothing.
This documentary can be the start of an effort that will pull the community together rather than push it further apart. Even today, by continuing to focus on Mr. Withers as a bad guy without acknowledging the fact that all black people back then were powerless and lacked the ability to change their circumstances in Memphis, further points up the need for truth and reconciliation.