National Press Club

NPC schedules panel exploring man’s role as civil rights photographer, FBI snitch

September 10, 2013 | By John M. Donnelly |

The NPC's Freedom of the Press and Young Members Committees are planning a panel discussion exploring how a mid-size city newspaper was able to unearth the extraordinary story of how an iconic photographer of the civil rights movement led a double life as an FBI informant.

The panel is scheduled for Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the National Press Club in the Lisagor Room. Admission is free for National Press Club members and $5 for non-members. Register here.

The event, called “Double Exposure,” is designed to bring to life how the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis used a precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit -- and years of reporting -- to piece together the facts about Ernest Withers.

Withers was a photographer with close access to whom Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. But, it turned out, Withers was at the same time secretly shooting pictures of King and other civil rights leaders for the FBI and providing agents with personal information on the figures and their plans. 

The panel has particular resonance today. It comes just weeks after the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and on the heels of recent news about the government's sweeping domestic surveillance operations. The discussion hopes to highlight the challenges public-affairs journalism faces as news organizations’ business models are under stress. The discussion plans to shed light not only on the government's past surveillance practices but also on FOIA and the public's right to know what its government is up to. 

Panelists will include:

  • Marc Perrusquia, reporter for the Commercial Appeal
  • David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author on the civil rights movement
  • Mizell Stewart III, vice president for newspaper content at The E.W. Scripps Company
  • David M. Giles, vice president and deputy general counsel at The E.W. Scripps Company
  • Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services for the National Archives and Records Administration
  • John F. Fox, Jr., PhD, historian of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • (moderator) Charles D. Tobin, attorney at the law firm of Holland & Knight LLP

The National Press Club's Press Freedom Committee leads Press Club efforts to speak out about potential threats to press freedom and open government in the United States and abroad and to promote greater transparency and protections for journalists.