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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.


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.

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