The Secret Tragedy of Martin Luther King Last March Revealed

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Withers was there when Elvis Presley broke through, capturing him visiting the black singers in the Beale Street clubs that inspired his music (and his hips). He also produced powerful images of the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955; the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957; and the rise of the Black Power movement. One of his most famous photos captures Martin Luther King Jr. riding a newly integrated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after that boycott ended in 1956.

Withers supported social justice, but his legacy is tangled by a secret association with the FBI. Like many of his generation, he was a patriot; he’d served in the Army during World War II and was disturbed by the anti-war movement of the 1960s. He was a man of his time, too, in his distrust of Communists, whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed were behind King’s civil rights movement and militant Black Power leaders like Eldridge Cleaver. Such feelings, Preston Lauterbach suggests in his new book, Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers (W.W. Norton & Co., January 15), were behind the decision of an African-American photographer to become a well-compensated informant against black activists.

Hoover’s Memphis agents were tasked with monitoring local civil rights leaders, including the Reverend James Lawson, co-founder of the Committee on the Move to Equality (COME), which was committed to civil disobedience, and John B. Smith of the Invaders, a Black Power offshoot openly defiant of King’s philosophy of nonviolence. Because of his coverage of the movement, Withers was trusted and invited to local meetings. In turn, his photo studio on Beale Street was an unofficial Invaders hangout. He fed his findings to his FBI contact, William Lawrence. That double life came to a head during the Memphis sanitation workers strike, which began after the accidental death of two workers in February 1968. Hundreds went on strike, and a march was planned for March 22, then rescheduled, because of a freak snowstorm, for March 28. Reverend Lawson it was  invited King to speak at the march.                                                                 

As Lauterbach writes, Memphis authorities were unprepared for a mass march; the largest up to that point had topped out in the low hundreds. This one would measure up to the 1965 Selma-Montgomery campaign in Alabama.

On the night of March 27, King was in New York City, at the home of singer and activist Harry Belafonte. King, the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), established in 1957 to end segregation, had been tirelessly promoting his Poor People’s Campaign—with its shift from social to economic injustice—and a planned march on Washington. (The campaign’s first phase was the erection of a shantytown, to become known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall, an idea that alarmed Hoover.) King was exhausted, but he and Belafonte spoke late into the night. At dawn he boarded a flight for Memphis. King arrived a half hour late, at 10:30 a.m. When he stepped out of his car, the large crowd became hysterical with excitement. As the march began, writes Lauterbach, “King could have lifted both feet and been propelled by the great momentum behind him.” Many of the thousands of protesters were carrying “I Am a Man” signs. Withers had suggested the signs and distributed the lumber to make them, and they would feature prominently in the photographs he’d take that day—and in the events to follow.

His Rolleiflex also captured the clearly shaken King at the head of the crowd, his arm linked with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, his top man for over a decade. It had been 12 years since Withers had taken the image of King on a Montgomery bus, Abernathy at his side. “King had been 27 on that day in 1956,” writes Lauterbach. “Now he was crowding 40. He looked 50.”

High school followers of Invaders leader Smith, some armed with tire irons and Molotov cocktails, began to use the “I Am a Man” signs as weapons. Soon conflicts broke out between those protesters and over 300 officers from the city’s police department. The demonstration quickly turned into a riot. “King had stood in the eye of extreme violence before, withstanding a police attack in Selma, a racist mob attack in [Chicago suburb] Cicero and a bomb explosion at his home in Montgomery,” says Lauterbach. “But never before had one of his marches turned violent from within.”

After less than half an hour, King was spirited away in a car. Lawson said later that he had urged King to leave but that he had refused until he was practically forced into the car. Local authorities, however, would say that King abandoned the march, fearing for his safety, without trying to stop any of the violence or property destruction. “The Assistant Chief of Police,” writes Lauterbach, “would quote King as saying, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ The quote would form an important part of an FBI smear campaign to come.” In the end, the police beat and gassed protesters, arresting 300 and shooting four alleged looters. Along the city’s famed Beale Street, “glass shards from broken store windows and fractured two-by-twos used for the signs choked the gutters.”

Martin Luther King Jr. lay despondent. After leaving the scene of the riot, he and his group had checked into the Holiday Inn Rivermont, a high-rise hotel overlooking the Mississippi, about a mile and a half from where the march began. They took a suite on the eighth floor. King had got into bed fully clothed and pulled up the covers.

While burning through a chain of Salem cigarettes, he spoke to Abernathy. “Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here,” King said. “Maybe we just have to give up and let violence take its course.” Abernathy had never seen King like this, nor heard him talk this way. In his depression, King contemplated calling off the Poor People’s Campaign.

To lift King’s mood, another aide arranged for an important friend to get in touch. Stanley Levison phoned King’s room from his home in New York City. An adviser and fundraiser for King’s SCLC, Levison had been a faithful friend for many years. As a former affiliate of the Communist Party USA, Levinson had been Hoover’s justification for investigating King, as a possible “Red” influence on the civil rights movement.

The bureau tapped Levison’s phone and picked up his conversation with King in Memphis. Agents heard King tell Levison that a local Black Power group called the Invaders had incited the riot.

In the confusion of March 28, 1968, it’s easy to lose sight of the day’s key issue: the possibility that the FBI sabotaged the march. The riot happened during a month of increasing federal anxiety over the Poor People’s Campaign and two days after the FBI proposed smearing King to curtail support among potential supporters. If the bureau had indeed encouraged the riot, it would need someone else to blame. Creating a wedge between King and Black Power fit the bureau’s objective of preventing the rise of a black messiah who could electrify and unify the black nationalist movement, beginning a true black revolution. The conduct of Lawrence, Withers’s longtime FBI handler, in documenting the riot provides clues of treachery.

While King smoked in bed, Withers conferred with Lawrence. The next day, Lawrence finished a long memo about the riot, which the Memphis office sent to Hoover. Lawrence had three sources of information about the demonstration: Withers, Memphis Press Scimitar reporter Kay Pittman Black and a third party whose observations closely match those of Memphis police undercover officer Marrell McCollough, who had infiltrated the Invaders. Addressing the factors that contributed to the violence, Lawrence wrote that Reverend Lawson’s COME strike support group had “unwittingly” armed anyone who showed up to march.

The COME group handed out hundreds of prepared placards made of cardboard and carried on long 4-foot pine poles. Before the march, it was apparent to these three sources that many of the young people were planning to use the placards as sticks and clubs because they were indiscriminately ripping the cardboard away, leaving a 4-foot pole in their hands, which many of them waved in a threatening manner.

Lawrence was referring here to the “I Am a Man” strike support posters. Addressing how the two-by-twos became weapons, Lawrence’s “source one” for this memo—Withers—made the most specific accusation against an Invaders leader in provoking the riot. “Source one pointed out that prior to the start of the March 28, 1968 march that John [B.] Smith and some of his associates were in his opinion inciting to violence in that they were indiscriminately giving out the 4-foot pine poles to various teenage youngsters in the area and John Smith was heard by source one to tell these youngsters, identities not known, not to be afraid to use these sticks. He did not elaborate as to what he meant.”

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