SPECIAL REPORT By Howard M. Romaine, Attorney, Writer
NASHVILLE, TN — On the day of her birthday this past July, Nashville human rights activist, and Tennessee Tribune news publisher, Mrs. Rosetta Miller Perry, found that like Martin King, and dozens of other sixties and seventies civil rights era veterans, she had been spied upon by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, without her knowledge. At the time she was working in the Federal Building in Memphis where the office of the Commission was housed with other federal agencies including the FBI some with whom she knew. Miller Perry’s role for the United States Commission on Civil Rights was a vital role in advancing civil rights through objective and comprehensive investigation and analysis about the Memphis garbage strikers and report those issues daily to the Washington Headquarters Office.
It was in front the Federal building that the very first demonstrations of the Memphis garbage strikers were held said her boss at the time, Bobby Doctor, now retired from the Commission and living in Atlanta. Even before the revelations of extensive FBI spying, and interference by federal police agents working undercover, which were uncovered by Congress after the Watergate break-ins, and Congressional investigations, Doctor says he suspected that a number of the people who claimed to be radical, violent activists, and who broke windows, and did other disruptions that discredited the nonviolent protest, were really not authentic local activists, but intelligence agents sent in by the CIA to disrupt, and destroy the King movement.
As to the justification of the Federal Government spying on the Civil Rights Commission’s civil investigation and conciliation efforts, Doctor said there was no justification, except as a means to discredit serious Federal work on behalf of civil rights, that his agency was engaged in. It became known later to Doctor that his Washington supervisors had been given documents gathered by the FBI in order to discredit the work of the Commission authorized by the Commission and performed by government officials Bobby Doctor and Rosetta Miller. Probably some of these documents were among those recently used as the basis for the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s revelations about the FBI surveillance of Rosetta Miller, now Miller-Perry.
Commercial Appeal’s investigation of Photographer Ernest Withers
The July revelations about the FBI spying on the Publisher of this newspaper came as part of the Court records released by Federal Court law suit under the Federal Freedom of Information Act, pursued over a mult-year period by the Memphis Commercial Appeal to obtain surveillance records and photographs supplied the FBI by Ernest Withers, a world-famed Memphis photographer, whose role as an informant was fi rst revealed by the Commercial Appeal t wo years ago. I n an affidavit supplied with the documents ordered released by Memphis Federal Judge, Amy Berman Jackson, the FBI for the fi rst time has admitted Withers role as an ‘informant’ but the details, and time frame of his cooperation with the federal police agency remains to be clarified, and is hotly controverted by his family, and by other experts in the field.
However, and whenever, that discussion ever is completed, his photographic genius is undeniable, as anyone can see from the photos posted online for sale from various galleries. From B.B. King to Elvis and Brooke Benton, and Ike and Tina Turner, and many others in the music fi eld, to iconic photos of segregation, or of Dr. King at Medgar Evers’ Funeral, or taken in a motel room during the Meredith March, to the final campaign of King’s life, the Memphis garbage strike, where Withers’ “I Am A Man” photo of strikers is stunning in its visual power.
Miller Perry, Bobby Doctor and Howard Romaine
As a young staff member at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Miller worked with Bobby Doctor to attempt to get the various factions of the civil rights movement together, to accept participation by the younger more militant youth in Memphis, and to cooperate in a joint effort to resolve the strike which arose after one of the workers was killed, and focused on low pay and dangerous working conditions. Her and Doctor’s work was to attempt to reconcile all factions, and lead to a solution. Instead, according to some details released, or “selectively released” both Perry and Doctor were depicted as aiding the organizers and strikers, which the FBI was simultaneously trying to discredit, and, in effect destroy.
This writer knew Bobby Doctor in Virginia, in the mid-sixties, when Doctor was recently out of the military service and working for the Virginia Council on Human Relations, before going to work for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. And Romaine, a graduate student at Virginia, was working with the Virginia Student Civil Rights Committee, a joint project of Nashville based Southern Student Organizing Committee, and the Atlanta-based Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – a last gasp in 1965 to 1967 in interracial community organizing.
Oddly, all three share a birthday of July 7, and surely this story calls for a longer look by all three at what remains outstanding in FBI files on their long work in various phases of ‘the movement.’
Miller Perry’s Concern with Media Distortion and Possible Injury
“I could have lost my job, “ says Miller Perry of the secret surveillance and files kept on her. If it were today with all this hate in the country against people of color she said she would not have survived her job. She performed her job as she was employed to do so. If it were today, she said “I believe with all my heart, my bosses would have lied and said they did not hire me to cover the Garbage Strike. Real, honest, decent men worked in government in those days.” Moreover, she says, “I really don’t know yet how it could have affected my career, until all the facts come out.” “I do know one thing, I became a supervisor with EEOC in Memphis, then inaugural director of the Nashville EEOC Office. When I retired I became the first African-American woman to own and publish a newspaper and purchase a building in the heart of the inner city. That is justice alone for me.”
Irritating also to her is the rather uninformed way that an AP wire story about the revelations were run nationally and by the local daily which was negative as usual about Nashville African-Americans. The local daily included a photograph of friends of hers, with the exception of one in no way connected with the events i n Memphis years ago – that photograph was of several women honored for their lifetime achievements, such as Xernona Clayton a long time friend of Miller Perry who was a key player in the Civil Rights Movement along with Dr. Martin Luther King and also establishing CNN’s annual Trumpet Awards in Atlanta, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice formerly from Meharry Medical College and now Morehouse School of Medicine, who Miller Perry knew only five years and Patricia Pierce, Miller-Perry’s friend of more than forty years and recognized internationally as an advocate for diversity and equity but was never involved in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement. Miller Perry said the local media has many pictures of her or they could have taken a picture just as the Commercial Appeal drove over 300 miles to do so. She said she and Withers were friends years and in fact he took the picture included for this article as her professors established a scholarship in her honor at Memphis State University now called the University of Memphis. She said now does that sound like “a controversial negro who is the type who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.’’ Miller Perry said she believes the CIA hired blacks who kept detailed intelligence on so-called ‘radicals’’ as they inflamed the black community with their paid inflammatory rhetoric.
She said she never considered herself as important as Dr. Martin Luther King and others so she feels that the FBI was trying to destroy her career disparage her reputation as well as other black professionals in Memphis, and they succeeded with some but their lies didn’t work about her she said. Miller Perry said that if the FBI thought she was such a controversial negro she is sure that they spied on her and her late husband, LOP Perry MD, as they traveled to Cuba, Russia, Poland, Germany, Japan, China, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, South America, England, Alaska, Jordan (twice) and many other countries in the past 50 years. Miller Perry said she is not angry with her late friend. She saw him two years before he passed in Memphis and he was as jolly as ever.
Deeper Issues of Federal Involvement in the Murder of King Remain Unsolved, and From a Legal Perspective, Unresolved
This writer was neither in Tennessee, nor tuned into the work of Attorney William E. Pepper, during the late 80s and early 90s when he led, at the request of certain members of the Southern Christian Leadership Counsel, and the King family, a lengthy investigation, then a ‘mock trial’ held in Memphis, starting January 25 thru February 5, 1993, which is the title of chapter 24, of Orders to Kill, (Warner Books, April 1998), a book which on site witness, Bobby Doctor says best sums up his view of the events, a conspiracy, including federal agents, and agencies, in killing King and blaming James Earl Ray . In the preface to the book, Dexter King says, “My family and I have long shared the conviction that the so-called official version, that James Earl Ray somehow acted alone in killing my father was unacceptable. We don’t doubt that it is possible for a lone, malevolent assassin to murder a public figure; we simply believe that there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary in this case.”
Dexter King continues, “Yet until the publication of William F. Pepper’s Orders to Kill, there was no single book I could recommend as a satisfying explanation of the events of April 4, 1968, and the motives behind the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. There remain many unanswered questions to be sure…..but, “Dr. Pepper’s exhaustive research sheds new light on critical questions including the extent of the involvement of government intelligence agencies, military units and organized crime in the assassination, the motives behind it, and the individuals who ordered and participated in it.”
As there is no statute of limitations on murder, and in the last few years a few old Klansmen have been hauled up on murder charges from the 1960s by new local prosecutors, in Mississippi, of all places, it is not beyond the possibility that some courageous and equipped local prosecutor will take up the challenge of resolving the King murder, and bringing the various individuals suggested by Pepper to justice. It’s a very, very long shot, but then so was the notion of a Black President.
Featured image caption: Professors, Dr. David Acey and Dr. Joanne Chickering establishing the Rosetta Miller Scholarship at University of Memphis, photo by Ernest Withers