Charges That a Civil Rights Hero Was an FBI Spy Shouldn’t Shock Us

Government snoops were always close confidants.

By Barbara Ransby Sep 15, 2010

I was up late the other night going over barely legible copies of declassified FBI documents from the 1940s and 1950s. I’m researching Eslanda and Paul Robeson, and the FBI documents reveal the enormous resources the government expended to spy on the Robesons for more than two decades. I was not surprised, then, when I woke up the next day to this week’s blockbuster news about Ernest Withers, a distinguished black photographer who died in 2007 and who, the Memphis Commercial Appeal declares, was paid by the FBI to spy on civil rights movement leaders during the 1960s.

The news came as a shock to many who knew Withers, including close friends and allies of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a trusted photojournalist who was allowed into private, intimate gatherings where others could not go. But as I think of how government surveillance schemes have worked over the years, Withers’ story should not be too much of a surprise. I don’t know if the allegations against Withers are true; I have not seen the original documents. But I can say, from what I know of other informants and other cases, that it is wholly plausible.

In my research on civil rights movement organizer Ella Baker years ago, I scoured hundreds of letters, memos, and reports from various anonymous FBI informants. As I read, I wondered to myself, did she know she was being spied upon? Who were these people prying into her life and work? What a betrayal! Many of the documents explain why the informants were credible. They explain that he or she was "trusted" by the subject and therefore was a reliable source. Some documents explain that "the informant called the subject under the pretext of inviting her to dinner, and asked…" some detail the FBI needed to undermine Baker’s activism. Reading these documents, you have the unsettling feeling that her spies were not unfriendly strangers or hostile interrogators, but people who were friends and even confidants. Such was the the unsavory nature of the FBI’s work on the civil rights movement, and it mirrors how the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era unfolded.

Still, it was hardly unique. The Black Panther Party, an anti-police brutality group that grew into a larger political organization in the late 1960s, was a special target of FBI surveillance. The COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence) unit of the FBI was set up to focus largely on monitoring and undermining the activities of the Panthers, whose chapters eventually stretched from New York to Detroit to Oakland. They often reached out to disaffected urban youth who were angry and beaten down by the system, and didn’t know where to direct their frustrations. The Panthers offered a target for that anger, and an analysis to explain it. However, the nature of their work meant their recruits were often vulnerable. So, when the FBI looked to for spies, it turned to the Panther members themselves.

The tragic police killing of young Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Carter in their home in Chicago in 1969 was one result. The person who later admitted to setting Hampton and Carter up, telling the police all the details of where they were sleeping and how the apartment was laid out, was viewed as a committed organization insider. Informant William O’Neal was so trusted that he was one of party chair Fred Hampton’s bodyguards in 1969. Twenty-one years later, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, O’Neal killed himself. His relatives speculated that he spied on the Panthers to save himself from prison time for an unrelated offense.

These stories remind us not only that our government has routinely violated the basic civil liberties of so many black activists over several generations, but it reminds us of the complexities and limitations of presumed racial loyalty. The Black Press was given access to movement events and meetings in the 1960s that white reporters were not. Why? It was assumed that a level of racial solidarity and loyalty existed. Maybe that was true. But maybe it wasn’t. We continue to project false expectations onto politicians and self-appointed race leaders because of phenotype rather than politics, ideas and other more tangible markers of "loyalty" to oppressed people. Everyone who looks like "us" is not a friend, and everyone who looks different is not automatically the enemy. This is a simple lesson that some of us still have to learn.

Who knows what motivated Ernest Withers, if the reports are indeed true, to use his access to the civil rights movement’s inner circles to aid the FBI and undermine the movement. Was it naivete, fear, greed or a combination of all three? Whatever the motives, his case is not unique.

Anyone interested in a glimpse into the extensive FBI surveillance of 1960s black leaders and activists, and many others, can go to the electronic reading room of the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) section on Commonly requested files are online. Searching Dr. King’s name yields tens of thousands of documents. Others who were secretly investigated by the FBI include: United Farm Workers leader Ceasar Chavez; the venerable scholar, writer and activist, W.E. B. DuBois; and even the Black contralto, Marian Anderson. The agency cast its net widely.

Perhaps the best contemporary parallel to rampant and often unchecked governmental surveillance of activists in the 1960s is the current and persistent hype about the threat of terrorism. There remains much fear-mongering about domestic terrorists–lurking in sleeper cells, living next door, waiting to leap into action to cause untold havoc and mayhem at any moment. This kind of hysteria recruits spies, some who might have only their suspicions to offer, suspicions often animated by racism and xenophobia. Since 9/11, Arab Americans and American Muslims have suffered some of the results of overzealous citizen spying. We know that there was also illegal warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. peace groups in recent years by the National Security Agency. And "Democracy Now!" and other alternative media reported in June that the State Department is reviving its domestic spying program under a new name, replacing the TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice), which was deemed illegal and shut down several years ago.

Withers may be gone, but government spying on American citizens engaged in many kinds of oppositional activity seems to be alive and well.