Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don't Know What To Think

Some of you may have heard that it's been revealed that well-known Civil Rights photographer Ernest Withers was an informant for the FBI as he snapped the pictures that would be his legacy. Check out the Memphis Commercial Appeal stories complete with a host of related information.

I must admit, I'm deeply conflicted.

This expose is pretty damning. If you read the Commerical-Appeal's information Withers' had no problem supplying all kinds of information to the FBI and apparently went out of his way to provide as much damning personal information as he could discover. Withers may have been capturing some of the most powerful moments of the movement on film, but he was also capturing many members at their most vulnerable and delivering that information to the FBI. The files are filled not just with details, but also with his own thoughts and speculations on the motivations and character defects of the people he encountered.

First off, I want to acknowledge that I don't have much trust for the FBI today, and I have no trust for the FBI of the past. So, these files could be exagerating what Withers did, and I find it somewhat suspicious that he was "outed" by a former FBI agent. That said, there is no denying that if the FBI is framing Withers, they are doing a bang up job because I don't think I've seen a more troubling collection of information about a prominent black icon. Well, maybe the news released about James Bevel was more disturbing, but only because of the nature of the crimes he was accused of commiting.

My mistrust of the FBI, along with my questions about the motivations of the Commercial Appeal and that paper's own history with the movement, make me unsure about how to view Withers. I find myself wanting to find some sort of information that will exonerate him from these accusations, and in the back of my mind I don't want this to be true. It feels like this sort of betrayal is an indictment of the movement as a whole, and just one more blackmark on what many blacks think of as their shinining accomplishment in this country.

Honestly, that's the real problem. Black folks, through the efforts of the school system and the media, have had our entire contributions to America reduced to slavery, Jim Crow and Civil Rights. That's how we have been taught to define ourselves, and while the first two items generate an endless reserve of anger, the last one is often a source of pride. This mindset leads us to reject negative information about the movers and shakers of the movement and cling to the most positive of portrayals.

That is a mistake.

Black people have contribued far more to America then any historian has ever been able to catalogue, but we also need to embrace the idea that flawed actors can still be heroes. Human beings can do good even if they themselves aren't admirable people in other ways.

For too long black people have tried to create this mask of perfection to present to the white world because we are afraid that they will judge us too harshly if they see the reality. It's an offshoot of the common belief of the past that black folks had to "earn" their rights as American citizens instead of having them bestowed upon us at our births. It's a stupid, stupid way to live.

Ernest Withers apparently was a snitch. Nobody knows exactly how he started his career as a snitch, or what his motivation was for supplying the FBI with information. We don't know how he felt about his actions and we don't know how he felt about the movement that he spent so much time chronicling. All we have are these FBI files and the amazing and powerful photos he took of those times.

It's up to us to consider every thing before we decide what to think.



Anonymous said...

This is just sad. I know that there were AA's who weren’t exactly thrilled by Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement at the time. And, it is difficult to understand how a black man could do something like this; but, it doesn’t negate anything the movement in general or its leaders accomplished.

Mr. Noface said...

I can say nothing of the his motivations at during his role in Government sanctioned domestic spying. I do wonder though, how he could live with himself getting all those accolades and be lionized for his role in the Civil Rights Movement, knowing what he did and what he was a part of.

Big Man said...

He probably wasn't convinced he did anything wrong.

From the stories, it seems he distrusted the Invaders and thought they would do more harm than good.

And, while he provided info on the Civil Rights leaders, he may have justified it by saying it wasn't anything the FBI couldn't find out on its own, and he needed the money to help raise his family. Plus, he might look at the pictures he took and their impact and say it more than evened out.

I have no idea if this is correct, just throwing out some plausible explanations.

Shady_Grady said...

Thurgood Marshall was an informant so news about Withers doesn't really surprise me. The system had people throughout every organization of note and many less important ones as well. And still does.

Raving Black Lunatic