Let me tell you how a great piece of investigative reporting came about.
Maybe you read or heard about the Martin-Luther King Jr.-era photographer, Ernest C. Withers, being identified as an FBI informant by The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ major daily newspaper.
Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, was giving the FBI boat loads of information about King; about the sanitation workers’ strike that led up to King’s assassination; and about a Black Panther-type group called the Invaders, which operated in Memphis in the late 1960s. Withers is now credited with helping the government break up the group.
Withers also focused on mainstream figures, including King, with whom Withers had unfettered access, and he passed along tips and photographs involving politics, business and everyday life in Memphis’ black community.
He is believed to have been paid for his work, although the FBI has refused to acknowledge he was an informant or that he was paid.
With that backdrop, here is how veteran investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia unmasked Withers, whose family refuses to believe he was an informant.
Perrusquia first got wind of Withers being an FBI informant more than a decade ago. A few years ago he twice requested — and was twice denied — Freedom of Information requests to copy the Justice Department’s file on Withers.
The Justice Department not only would not allow the paper to copy the file but refused to acknowledge that it exists. The Justice Department was able to get by with that because an exemption to Freedom of Information Act law allows officials to protect the identity of informants even after death.
What the paper managed to get instead was 369 pages related to a 1970s public corruption inquiry that focused on Withers, who pleaded guilty in 1979 to extorting kickbacks from a nightclub owner while he was a Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission agent.
Perrusquia began scouring those pages, which included redacted references to informants. But in one instance — just one place in all those pages — the guys with the Sharpies (or the computer-keyboard equivalent) screwed up; they failed to hide a reference to Withers’ informant number, ME 338-R.
With that, The Commercial Appeal had the combination that unlocked the vault. Here’s how the paper explained what happened next.
“…(T)he newspaper located repeated references to the number in other FBI reports released under FOIA 30 years ago. Those reports — more than 7,000 pages comprising the FBI’s files on the 1968 sanitation strike and a 1968-70 probe of the Invaders — at times pinpoint specific actions by Withers and in other instances show he was one of several informants contributing details.”
The Commercial Appeal published its big story on Sunday, Sept. 12. It was immediately picked up by other papers and news organizations throughout the country.
In a column that also ran on Sept. 12, Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck called the scoop “a wrinkle in history that speaks for the importance of a free press and good reporting,” and he explained why Perrusquia’s scoop was so important decades after the fact.
“Every generation wrestles with this tug between the better in us and those things that, in retrospect, seem less than our best,” Peck wrote. “Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Rush Limbaugh and prescription drugs. Barry Bonds and steroids. We cannot count on two hands and two feet all the head-scratching examples of successful men, talented men who feel compelled to go against their own best interests.
“That’s why the Ernest Withers saga is relevant today. The questions raised by his secret life as an informant seem as pertinent and nettlesome today as they were 40 years ago.”
Thank you, then, Marc Perrusquia and The Commercial Appeal for exposing a deep, closely held secret that explained a lot about the government’s inside track on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the late 1960s.