Photographer Ernest Withers documented the struggles and the victories of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s through shocking and inspiring images that evoke the injustice and the rage of that history even today. Along the way, he himself became an icon.
When Withers photographed the grotesquely mutilated body of Emmett Till, slain for allegedly whistling at a white woman, the photos rocketed across the country and around the world in magazines and newsprint – notably in JET and LIFE magazines, and the Chicago Defender – forcing the nation to focus on that amplified vision of injustice. Withers himself was so moved that he vowed to attend each day of the trial and photograph those accused of the lynching.
After Withers died in 2007, documents secured through a Freedom of Information Act request, submitted by journalists the Memphis Commercial Appeal, revealed that in addition to taking photographs, Withers was also a paid informant for the FBI. A paper trail later emerged suggesting Withers gave the FBI sensitive information on leaders of the Movement, their meetings, and their activities – as part of the FBI’s official, “Ghetto Informant Program.”
CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien tells the story of the secret life of Ernest Withers in Pictures Don’t Lie, which encores on CNN/U.S on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 8:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. ET and PT.