By Clint Confehr
NASHVILLE, TN — One of the targets of an FBI informant in Memphis saw her face projected on a movie screen last week in the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University.
“‘She is … a rumormonger and one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups,’” FBI Agent Bill Lawrence wrote in May 1968, quoting informant Ernest Withers, a freelance photographer for Jet magazine and The Tri-State Defender.
“That’s me,” Tennessee Tribune publisher Rosetta Miller-Perry, a University of Memphis graduate, prior to the Memphis Sanitation Strike, said of the photo during a presentation by Marc Perrusquia, director of the Institute of Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, and author of “A Spy in Canaan; how the FBI used a famous photographer to infiltrate the civil rights movement.”
As a U.S. Civil Rights Commission employee in 1968, Rosetta Miller’s FBI file was embellished by Withers. Perrusquia and his publisher won a Freedom of Information Act suit; obtaining, in 2013-15, FBI files.
“I was a good friend of Mr. Withers,” Miller Perry said at the program presented by the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University.
Withers died at 85 in 2007.
In Memphis, the then-Mrs. Miller helped investigate human rights abuses for the Civil Rights Commission which recommended reforms to Congress. She went on to work for the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C. then returned to Memphis as a field supervisor and then Nashville where she became the first United States Equal Employment Commission Area Director in the Atlanta Region.
Previously a Commercial Appeal reporter, Perrusquia wrote about First Amendment abuses by the FBI as it collected personal and political data on law-abiding activists to: “destroy” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reputation and authority; disrupt the civil rights movement; and supposedly protect Americans against communists. The FBI worked closely with Memphis Police, and not just in the 1950s-’70s.
The Memphis Police Department — ordered by a judge in 1978 to stop spying on residents unless there’s a crime — is in federal court now because the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sued for enforcement the 1978 decree.
ACLU attorney Mandy Strickland Floyd, also a speaker at the Seigenthaler Center, said that in 2017 it was discovered that Memphis kept a list of people who had to have a police escort while in City Hall, so the ACLU returned to court demanding enforcement of the 1979 court order.
This year, federal Judge Jon McCalla ruled Memphis was violating the 1978 decree by: listing people for police escorts; holding interagency intelligence briefings; deploying plainclothes investigators to public events; and doing so without authority, Floyd said.
Having ruled that the police were again violating constitutionally protected rights, Judge McCalla has not finalized his decision. Memphis could be held in contempt and a monitor to assure compliance may be appointed, Floyd said.
“We are currently awaiting that decision,” Floyd said Oct. 18.
Memphis has already been ordered by Judge McCalla this year to stop spying on: people with non-profit organizations; Black Lives Matter associates; political activists and organizers; and people with no criminal record. MPD had a Facebook account to: look like community activists; find targets and events; know innocent citizens’ beliefs; and use Facebook Messenger as a tool to snoop on Americans.
Memphis police records in this decade “really functioned like the files that Marc discussed” from the 1960s and ’70s, Floyd said. Information in 2016 was shared with the military, Justice Department, Tennessee Homeland Security, Shelby County schools, and businesses including “Auto Zone, St. Jude, and FedEx.” Plainclothes officers monitored and photographed people at churches, food festivals, and a tree planting to remember a teenager killed by police.
“Shocked” that Withers contributed to her FBI file, Perry said, “I don’t know what made up lies by Withers and the FBI are in the files about me. I don’t give a “la merge” and never want to know, ever.”
Five decades ago, “some of the … folks who marched with me … lost their jobs. Teachers lost their jobs. They couldn’t get a job; not even at McDonald’s. Some … had master’s degrees.
“That could have happened to me, but my boss did not let the FBI talk them into firing me because my boss in Washington had me doing what I was doing.
“It was horrible for the people in Memphis,” Perry said.
“Every day, I think about … those brothers and sisters,” she said. The FBI “ruined their lives, their families … their homes … everything. It was a disgrace.”
Did Withers have regrets? Perrusquia: “I don’t think so. He was comfortable with what he was doing … He hustled anyway he could with eight children to feed.”
“I liked Mr. Withers,” Perry said. “We were good friends… I understand you have to do what you have to do to survive, but like I tell all brothers and sisters, you don’t have to sell your soul to survive.”
During the Cold War, Perrusquia said, fear of communists was intense. Paranoia motivated the government to treat citizens like foreign agents. “Civil unrest gave reason to prevent violence, but it became dangerous.”