Skip to main content

The Tragedy of Ernest C. Withers

Earnest C. Withers, a black man who photographed so many key moments of the Civil Rights Movement, was apparently a paid informant of the FBI during the 1960s -- keeping the government apprised of the movements and plans of Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies who fought for equal rights.

Civil rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and disbelief. “If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship,” said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Others were more forgiving. “It’s not surprising,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta. “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.”

The children of Mr. Withers did not respond to requests for comment. But one daughter, Rosalind Withers, told local news organizations that she did not find the report conclusive.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this in my life,” Ms. Withers told The Commercial Appeal. “My father’s not here to defend himself. That is a very, very strong, strong accusation.”

Mr. Withers is dead, so we can't possibly know his motivations for informing to the FBI.

But I was reminded of the great movie "The Lives of Others," about East Germany's extensive domestic spying program during the Cold War. As that movie -- and ample documentation from that era show -- a surveillance state is a leviathan that does much more than simply "surveil." It reaches into the lives of the people it observes, and the people around them, seeking control through manipulation, fear and the ever-present reminder that you are being watched. We think of ourselves in the West as being more free and more enlightened than East German stooges -- and, mostly, we have been -- but there have been times, such as when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI, that it has been a fairly close call.

We should thus mourn the tragedy of Ernest C. Withers, then: a man, maybe a man who could've been great, apparently compromised by forces much bigger than he.

And we should be concerned, too, that some 40 years from now we'll be finding out similar, horrifying revelations, about our friends and neighbors and government. The surveillance state always claims to be acting in the interest of our safety and security. Sometimes, it's even true.

Comments

KhabaLox said…
We won't have to wait 40 years. We already know that our ISPs and companies like Google are being pressured to 1) extend the length of time they keep user data (in the EU) and 2) turn that data over to the government.

Popular posts from this blog

Yoga

I've been making some life changes lately — trying to use the time I have, now that I'm back in Kansas, to improve my health and lifestyle. Among the changes: More exercise. 30 minutes a day on the treadmill. Doesn't sound like a lot, but some is more than none, and I know from experience that getting overambitious early leads to failure. So. Thirty minutes a day.

One other thing: Yoga, a couple of times a week. It's nothing huge — a 15-minute flexibility routine downloaded from an iPhone app. But I've noticed that I'm increasingly limber.

Tonight, friends, I noticed a piece of trash on the floor. I bent over at the waist and picked it up, and threw it away.

Then I wept. I literally could not remember the last time I'd tried to pick something off the floor without grunting and bracing myself. I just did it.

Small victories, people. Small victories.

Liberals: We're overthinking this. Hillary didn't lose. This is what it should mean.

Interesting:
Nate Cohn of the New York Times estimates that when every vote is tallied, some 63.4 million Americans will have voted for Clinton and 61.2 million for Trump. That means Clinton will have turned out more supporters than any presidential candidate in history except for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And as David Wasserman of Cook Political Report notes, the total vote count—including third party votes—has already crossed 127 million, and will “easily beat” the 129 million total from 2012. The idea that voters stayed home in 2016 because they hated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a myth. We already know the Electoral College can produce undemocratic results, but what we don't know is why — aside from how it serves entrenched interests — it benefits the American people to have their preference for national executive overturned because of archaic rules designed, in part, to protect the institution of slavery. 

A form of choosing the national leader that — as has happened in …

I'm not cutting off my pro-Trump friends

Here and there on Facebook, I've seen a few of my friends declare they no longer wish the friendship of Trump supporters — and vowing to cut them out of their social media lives entirely.

I'm not going to do that.

To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.

As a matter of idealism, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.

And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.

Don't get me wrong: I expect a Trumpian presidency is a disaster, particularly for people of color. And in total honesty: My own relationships have been tested by this campaign season. There's probably some damage…