According to Commercial Appeal, Ernest C. Withers, the person who shared and documented some of America’s most tragic/glorious moments during the civil rights movement was a federal mole. It isn’t surprising now considering just how much access this one documentary photographer received. Ernest Withers captured moments such as the Little Rock 9, the Emmett Till murder and up to Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis. Ernest did this simply by gaining everyone’s trust and making his way into some of the most influential, mundane and political circles.
I kind of parallel this to when I see ‘backstage’/'candid’ moments captured by a ‘rock’ photographer. I get so lost in the romanticism and think to myself, “how on earth can one person get so much access.” Then I remember that this was probably done in part of some PR move or an exclusive for some magazine or simply just a friend who managed to tour with the band for a year.
Keep in mind though that Ernest Withers photographed from 1955 all the way to 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Ernest Withers not only managed to documents a large chunk of American history but also seemed to get lost within the movement himself. This is evident in the proximity and compassion his subjects were captured in. People of course have been appalled and shocked by this news but really it isn’t surprising at all, especially considering he was working in a post McCarthy era. Instead of being offended by Ernest C. Withers, I am going to applaud him. Maybe being funded by the United States was the only way these photographs could have been created. In the process he managed to document a self-righteous nation at one of its worst times and more importantly created a visual tapestry of one the most important American civil liberty movements of the 20th century.