September 22nd, 2010 Examiner.com
by Michael Richardson
The revelation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal that acclaimed
photographer Ernest Withers was an informant on the civil rights movement
to the Memphis office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has put
COINTELPRO back in the news.
Operation COINTELPRO was a vast, illegal and clandestine program ordered
by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to “disrupt” political activity that
Hoover felt undesirable. Spanning a number of years and targeting
thousands of individuals and groups nationwide, COINTELPRO came to
dominate FBI priorities in the 1960’s as Hoover stepped up his own private
war on American citizens engaged in political activity.
Hoover felt the growing black power movement was America’s most serious
domestic threat and targeted its leaders including Martin Luther King.
Although King preached non-violence, King’s high profile made him a
COINTELPRO target and the subject of close surveillance and
Withers’ reputation will forever be marred by his stint from 1968 to 1970
as a COINTELPRO informant and his new exposure as an extortionist and
influence-peddler. As a state employee Withers pled guilty to extortion
of $8,500 from a bar owner. Withers was also fired as a local policeman
and narrowly escaped prosecution for attempting to arrange
cash-for-freedom deals for prisoners.
Withers’ Beale Street photography studio put him in the center of Memphis
black life and he became a human institution in the community. Working
the nightclubs after dark and his photo studio by day, Withers dropped
everything else when a civil rights event needed recording.
Withers reported to the Memphis FBI agent in charge of local COINTELPRO
duties, William Lawrence. There is no evidence that Withers was aware of
the secret COINTELPRO mandate or that he talked with anyone else higher in
the FBI chain of command. However, Withers’ reports were studied closely
at the highest level in Washington, D.C.
Although J. Edgar Hoover commanded daily operations in FBI headquarters
which he called the “Seat of Government” and read many of the reports sent
to him from around the nation, Hoover’s initials are absent from Withers’
reports. Instead, Hoover relied on a directorate to make summaries and
brief him on developments in cities and groups he was interested in.
Two names that do appear on the secret COINTRELPRO reports from Memphis
are William Sullivan and George Moore, who both show up on distribution
lists and initialed or signed the reports indicating they had read and
Sullivan, long the third in command of the FBI, was chief architect of
COINTELPRO while Moore headed the “Racial Intelligence” unit of
COINTELPRO. Both men despised King, as did Hoover, and they followed
information supplied by Withers closely.
Hoover first ordered wiretaps and hidden microphones on King in the late
1950’s on the premise that King was a suspected Communist agent. Hoover
later ended the bugging of King when he became concerned of exposure.
Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, ordered the next round of secret
monitoring of King to keep tabs on the civil rights movement.
Sullivan, on his own initiative, would order a third round of
eavesdropping on King in the mid-1960’s for political intelligence.
King’s “I Have A Dream” speech outraged Sullivan who wrote to Hoover that
King was “demagogic”.
Sullivan advised Hoover, “We must mark [King] now, if we have not done so
before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation…..it may
be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic
proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony
in court or before Congressional Committees.”
In December of 1963 Sullivan convened a headquarters meeting of various
FBI offices about the investigation of King. Sullivan told the assembled
agents that King was “unfit” and declared, “We must continue to keep close
watch on King’s personal activities.”
After King was named “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine, Sullivan gave his
own “trespass” order and arranged for the installation of microphones in
King’s hotel rooms. Sullivan began an aggressive bugging program sending
FBI sound teams and “black-bag” experts around the country as King
Sullivan wrote a memo presaging the anonymous letter advising King to
commit suicide he is also presumed to have authored.
“We will at the proper time when it can be done without embarrassment to
the Bureau, expose King as an immoral opportunist who is not a sincere
person but is exploiting the racial situation for his own personal gain.”
During the time Withers was providing information to Lawrence, Moore and
Sullivan were using the secret reports in their campaign against
King--even after King’s 1968 assassination. Withers passed on information
that he gleaned while attending King’s funeral.
In January 1969, Moore sent Sullivan a memo warning of a move to make
King’s birthday a national holiday. Moore urged Sullivan to have material
ready from the hotel room tapes to play for the incoming Nixon
administration in an effort to stop the new national holiday.
Sullivan passed on Moore’s suggestion to Hoover and on January 23, 1969,
just three days in after Nixon’s inauguration, Hoover sent the Attorney
General designee, John Mitchell, a Top Secret memo.
“In view of this [national holiday plans] there is enclosed a document
regarding the communist influence on King during his career and
information regarding King’s highly immoral personal behavior. For your
information, a copy of this document is also being furnished to the
Friday, September 24, 2010
September 22nd, 2010 Examiner.com