Double take: The great civil rights lensman who was an FBI spy


Double take: The great civil rights lensman who was an FBI spy

Ernest C Withers led a double life, but the question over his dedication to black liberation is not cut and dried

Marc Perrusquia

The Rev Martin Luther King jnr sits in a church basement surrounded by a small circle of men in folding chairs. He looks pensive and uneasy – legs tightly crossed, his chin resting ever so slightly on the back of his hand as if lost in thought.

This could have been a scene from a Sunday prayer meeting or a glum visitation before a parishioner’s funeral. But the tension in the soft shadows and the men’s anxious expressions evokes something far more momentous. Indeed, King was preparing for a high-stakes press conference. It was 1966, and he was deeply troubled by the recent shooting of James Meredith, the black activist who’d famously enrolled at the all-white University of Mississippi four years earlier and who now lay in a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital in grave condition.

The gritty, fly-on-the-wall picture was taken by Ernest C Withers, one of the most celebrated photographers of the civil rights era, and it appears among two dozen of his signed prints now on display at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. The exhibition, Ernest C Withers: Civil Rights and the Memphis Blues (, includes classics Withers shot over a 60-year career documenting culture and music in the American south. James Brown, Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley all appear in the collection, alongside photos of King and other leaders of the black freedom struggle – timeless gems made possible by Withers’s incredible access as a trusted civil rights movement insider...

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