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Ernest Withers was known by many as “the original civil rights photographer.” He captured the iconic images of Martin Luther King Jr. on the night King was shot in Memphis, and other leaders of the movement in the 1960s.

However, Withers reported in more ways than just his photography – he was also an FBI informant.

After a two year investigation conducted by Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal, the famous civil rights photographer was discovered to have provided the FBI with details about where King was staying and information on his meeting with black militants on April 3, 1968 – the day before his assassination.

According to the newspaper, Withers’ spying went beyond just Martin Luther King, Jr.

FBI reports indicated that the photographer collaborated for years with FBI agents to monitor the civil rights movement.

The reports reveal a covert, previously unknown side of the beloved photographer,” according to the paper’s Marc Perrusquia.

The paper’s investigation showed how Withers assisted J. Edgar Hoover, a controversial FBI director who long covertly monitored King and others considered radicals.

Withers gave the FBI a “front-row seat” to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis, according to The Commercial Appeal.

Withers is an iconic figure in Memphis, with a namesake museum is scheduled to open in October. However, the impacts by these revelations remain to be seen.

Withers reportedly provided information on various groups like the Invaders, a militant black power group, church leaders, politicians and business owners. Experts believe Withers was paid for spying.

D'Army Bailey, a retired Memphis judge and former activist once watched by the FBI, told the paper that the agency’s covert tactics are something you would expect in the most ruthless, totalitarian regimes.

The newspaper’s investigation was a two year struggle. The newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain Withers’ informant file, which the Justice Department rejected, and refused to acknowledge it existed.

The government did, however, release “369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption probe that targeted Withers -- by then a state employee who was taking payoffs -- carefully redacting references to informants -- with one notable exception,” said Perrusquia.

In those documents, the government inadvertently left a single reference to Withers' informant number, which unlocked the secret of the photographer's 1960s political spying when the newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released under FOIA 30 years ago, the newspaper reported.

The revelation comes weeks after a lawsuit filed against the FBI by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian after the federal agency failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain records on surveillance against Muslim communities in Northern California.

Filed in March of this year, the request requires the FBI to disclose records to show ‘whether and how’ they are investigating Islamic centers and mosques, Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, “assessing” religious leaders, and whether the agency is infiltrating communities using undercover agents and informants.

Adel Somaha, a community activist in the Bay Area currently studying criminal justice, said he was personally approached by the FBI after sending a letter to the Chief Police officer, expressing concerns about ways to resolve issues facing the Yemeni community.

A U.S. citizen with a U.S. custom seal, Somaha had previously worked with Congresswoman Barbara Lee to discuss challenges the community faces.

Somaha wrote that he looked forward resolving these issues for the benefit of both nations. After sending his letter, Somaha received a call from an FBI agent who had gotten his information through the Chief Police officer.

The agent wanted to meet with Somaha at both his home and office, which Somaha refused. Instead, he agreed to meet at a public location in Oakland.

“His questions were very personal questions,” Somaha said of the meeting. “They had nothing to do with the concerns in that letter. They were just leading to – ‘what do you think, are you the right person to work for us?,’ asking me to spy.”

The Bay Area resident said he was told they were looking for people like him.

“I can see things that they can't see,” he said. “But we need our mosques to be free of hate. They’re places of spiritual education, not spy stations.”

The fear of investigation impacts the communities by causing fear, stress, and prevents development, education and growth, he said.

“We claim to be a diverse society, but there's no telling who's going to be the next target,” he said.





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