FBI to release records on Withers’ informer work

Published 5:36 pm Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The FBI will release records about civil rights-era photographer Ernest Withers’ work as an informant for the FBI, to settle a Tennessee newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The Commercial Appeal of Memphis reported on its website Monday that under the settlement, the paper will have access to portions of 70 investigative files in which Withers participated as an informant. In addition, the paper reported, the FBI will pay $186,000 in attorney fees and legal costs.

Neither the Justice Department nor the FBI would provide any information on the settlement. Charles D. Tobin, a First Amendment lawyer who represented the newspaper, confirmed the details of the settlement.

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Withers, a freelancer for America’s black press, was known as “the civil rights photographer” for iconic images of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others protesting for racial equality in the South.

In 2010, The Commercial Appeal’s publisher, Memphis Publishing Co., and one of its reporters, Marc Perrusquia, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI. About a year ago, the judge in the case said that documents confirmed that Withers, who died at 85 in 2007, secretly served as an informer for the FBI.

Last year, under a court order, the FBI released 348 pages that were heavily redacted, but the newspaper had called that release insufficient.

Monday’s settlement calls for the National Archives and Records Administration to release records related to Withers from investigative case files, but not from Withers’ informant file, which is retained by the FBI, the Commercial Appeal reported.

Withers’ photographs had chronicled the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955, racial integration at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis that brought King to the city where he was assassinated. Withers marched with King and was beaten by police while covering civil rights leader Medgar Evers’ 1963 funeral.