"I AM a Man" Photo turns 50, and Its Story Continues to Deepen

Mar 28, 2018

Withers' iconic photo of men at a march is reflected in this colorful contemporary mural in Downtown Memphis by the artist Marcellous Lovelace.

Fifty years ago, on March 28, 1968, a photo taken during the Memphis sanitation workers strike came to embody a more universal struggle.

Of all the pictures taken by civil rights photographer Ernest Withers over more than 50 years, the group of striking sanitation workers remains his ultimate image, saturated with hope and despair, a symbol of every struggle where the goal is basic human dignity. But the story behind the picture — later found to be one of deception and surveillance — has, for some, provided more sinister backdrop to the iconic image.

Withers was a freelance photographer who had a studio on Beale Street. He was a decorated World War II veteran, and in those post-war years established himself as the de facto photographer of African-American life in Memphis, Tenn. He shot everything he could: sporting events, social functions, celebrities and important moments in the civil rights movement.

Withers took more than a million pictures during his lifetime.

But perhaps his most famous image — the one that hangs in major American institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture — depicts a wall of black sanitation workers, marching for better treatment.

Rosalind Withers points to a photo of her father whose work, she says, continues to tell the story of Memphis' African-American community.
Credit Christopher Blank, WKNO-FM

"And they are holding that sign that reads: I Am A Man," said Rosalind Withers, the photographer's daughter, who now runs the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. "And when you have to wear a sign that defines who you are, it just shows you how injustice has taken place for you to have to do that."

Withers' professionalism was well-known, and when civil rights leaders came to town, he often had special access to their meetings and hotel rooms. His pictures helped broadcast the story of the movement.

"He always carried three cameras," Rosalind Withers said, adding that each roll of film might have a different destination: one for the white press, one for the black press and the last he would keep for his archives.

But some of those photos were taken for a more dubious purpose.

Marc Perrusquia, an investigative reporter and author of the new book A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement, said Withers was also selling pictures and insider tips to the FBI. After Withers' death in 2007, Perrusquia discovered a code name in some government files. His newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, sued the FBI for more information and won. Perrusquia finally confirmed that Withers had worked as a trusted informant for many years.

"They used Ernest's gravitas as a news photographer," Perrusquia said. "They would basically tell him, 'We want you to cover this march,' under a pretext of a photographer. And they'd say, 'We want good identification pictures. Face shots."

When Martin Luther King Jr. came in to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers' strike, Withers contributed photos and tips to the government pool of heavy surveillance. The FBI was worried that King's next planned march on Washington, the Poor People's Campaign, could be larger and even more contentious than King's previous appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted evidence that King's positions against the Vietnam War and for economic equality were influenced by communists and black militants.

"The FBI was very much determined to stop [King]," Perrusquia said.

King was stopped, but by an assassin, on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

But even after King's death, the FBI records regarding him and his associates remained. Some files haunted activists for years, resurfacing to jeopardize their careers and reputations.

The level of police and FBI infiltration in the last days of King's life would later raise questions about Withers' legacy.

A file cabinet full of negatives in the Withers archive marked "Civil Rights." Withers took more than a million photos during his lifetime.
Credit Christopher Blank, WKNO-FM

Earnestine Jenkins, a professor at the University of Memphis and scholar of civil rights photography says that information puts the work in a new historical light.

"You can't throw it away and ... say that it doesn't matter," Jenkins said, adding that many Memphis activists still living from that period feel that his double life was a betrayal.

Rosalind Withers and her entire family was shocked to learn of her father's secret. But she says that his body of work still tells an essential story.

"Our history as African-Americans, it gets lost," she said. "And I can truly tell you the era in which my father lived has been detailedly recorded."