By Clint Confehr
MEMPHIS, TN — A documentary about American Civil Rights photographer Ernest Withers is the opening night movie for the Indie Memphis Film Festival on Wednesday.
“The Picture Taker” documents Withers who, as publicized, took “a million images” and had “one big secret” exposed by news reports. He was an FBI spy.
“He shouldn’t have sold his soul to a white man for a dollar,” Tennessee Tribune Publisher Rosetta Miller-Perry says in the movie’s trailer.
The photographer was close to Civil Rights activists. People appreciated his work, trusted him and later felt betrayed.
“It never dawned on any of us” that Withers was an informant, Miller-Perry says in the film. Her FBI file quotes him. “We just thought he was taking pictures.”
The film “reveals the man and motives behind the iconic images,” the producers say. Streaming starts Oct. 21.
Withers’ 60-year career in Memphis focused on all aspects of African-American life, so “The Picture Taker” goes beyond headlines based on public records forced from the FBI through Freedom of Information requests.
“She is … a rumormonger and one who will give aid and comfort to the Black power groups,” FBI Agent Bill Lawrence quoted Withers when Jet and The Tri-State Defender ran his photos. Lawrence repeated information on the Civil Rights Commission employee in May 1968. Now, the alleged “rumormonger” has published the Tribune for 30 years. She “was a good friend of Mr. Withers” while working at a federal office in Memphis, she said. Miller-Perry’s office was in the same building as the FBI where she was described as “the controversial negro” the month after Martin Luther King’s assassination. The then-Mrs. Miller was investigating human rights abuses for the Commission. Later, Her later Equal Employment Opportunity Commission job moved her to Nashville.
Miller-Perry spoke about it after a 2018 program by Marcus Perrusquia, author of “A Spy in Canaan; How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement.” As a Commercial Appeal reporter, Perrusquia wrote about Withers and the FBI’s First Amendment abuses as it collected personal and political data on law-abiding activists.
The film’s producer-lead researcher, Lise Yasui, and producer-director Phil Bertelsen document statements by: Perrusquia who broke the story; former FBI agents; and historians as they discuss the FBI’s motives in targeting civil rights activists. Miller-Perry’s “interview adds an essential perspective on this issue,” the producers said. “There is much discussion within the film of Ernest’s FBI involvement.”
Perrusquia sees Withers as both informant and a man trying to survive; “Some have tried hard to whitewash the informant story but it’s important, as substantial harm was caused.”
Bertelsen and Yasui say “The struggle for civil rights is constantly evolving and has been a focus of our work, often via the lens of individuals whose life choices embody the political and cultural dynamics of their times, but resonate still. Ernest Withers’ journey through modern American history is one of those stories.”
Perrusquia: hasn’t seen the film; respects the producers who “faced enormous pressures, particularly from the informant deniers;” and trusts they’ll “tell a compelling story that will serve the public good.” Withers is “a civil rights hero” who “did good” for the movement.” Withers’ “secret life … doesn’t eclipse that.” Details by the “prolific political informant … caused substantial and documentable harm.” Perrusquia’s 600-word statement was sent to TnTribune.com.
The documentary: shows Withers’ daughter, Roselyn, quoting him as saying “Sometimes you find yourself in a position of having to do things to take care of your family;” and, paints a nuanced portrait of a man who made difficult decisions during complicated times. See indiememphis.org.
Oct. 19-24, the Indie Memphis Film Festival is at the Halloran Centre, Crosstown Theater, Circuit Playhouse, Playhouse on the Square, Malco Studio on the Square, and much longer online.