March 27, 2018
On sale today! A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI used a famous photographer to infiltrate the civil rights movement
by Melville House
Today truly is one we’ve been waiting for: publication day for Marc Perrusquia’s A Spy In Canaan — an explosive piece of investigative journalism timed to the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
Ernest Withers enjoyed a front-row seat to history. Known as “the photographer of the civil rights movement,” he was a close confidant of Dr. King’s, the world’s eye on the US civil rights movement, and, as Perrusquia has uncovered through years of document requests and hard-nosed research, a paid FBI informant.
A Spy in Canaan offers, for the first time, a look at Withers in all his complexity — both a warrior for change and an ally of those who would stifle it, a key player in the civil rights movement who at the same time abetted efforts to derail it. It’ll change how you see American history. It’ll bring new meaning to iconic documents of the struggle for black liberation. And it’s out today.
To give you some sense of what we’re talking about, here’s an early passage from the book, in which Withers goes, alone, to inspect King’s body—not yet prepared for public viewing—at the morgue. Take a drink of water, read it, and get yourself a copy.
Sirens pierced the midnight air as smoke billowed from a dozen dying fires across Memphis. From the chaos, Ernest Withers stepped into the morgue room of the R. S. Lewis Funeral Home, cameras dangling from his neck, pursuing the biggest story of his career.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was dead.
Police finally had curtailed the rioting. But Withers’s work was only beginning.
As a standout photographer for America’s black press, the bold newsman often went places where technically he had no right to be. It was almost a sense of entitlement, really, as if he innately understood his special place in history. He’d covered the civil rights movement from its very dawn in Mississippi in 1955 with the murder of Emmett Till. He’d shot so many of the big stories—Montgomery, Little Rock, Ole Miss, the lynching of Mack Charles Parker and the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, where Withers was manhandled by police—that years later the movement’s thankful leaders knighted the underpaid newshound with his own precious but informal title, the “Original Photographer of the Civil Rights Movement.”
So it was in the late-night madness of April 4, 1968, that Withers navigated Memphis’s riot-torn streets, determined to see King one last time.
He made his way from the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot, tagging along with the fallen leader’s grieving party, with Ralph Abernathy and the others, to the Lewis Funeral Home, a stately, two-story frame house adorned with a red-tiled roof and a columned porch overlooking the massive Foote Homes public housing project, home to one of America’s largest concentrations of poor families. There, he found King’s unclothed body on a cold embalming table.
“I just took it on my own and went to the morgue and walked in and there he was,” he would recall years later.
Nothing in Withers’s thirteen-year career had prepared him for this.
As he readied his camera in the morgue room, arranging to take the first news photos of King in death, he found himself looking at someone—at something—he hardly recognized.
Jagged, white bone protruded from a large bullet hole in King’s jaw. Tgere was an even larger wound in his neck — this one big enough to poke a fist into.
The injuries came in a horrific, one-two punch when a sniper’s bullet whistling at 2,900 feet per second spiraled through his jawbone, exited under his chin, then reentered his body at the neck. Tumbling end over end on its reentry, the lead slug cut like a ripsaw through his upper spine, severing it, before funally coming to rest just under the skin behind King’s left shoulder blade.
But the greatest horror came at the sight of King’s head. The top of it was gone — completely missing. Autopsy surgeons at St. Joseph’s Hospital had sawed out an 8-by-5-inch oval section of King’s skull to remove and examine his brain.
Withers saw the severed skull piece on the embalming table next to King’s body. He picked it up. It was soft and fuzzy on one side where the hair and scalp still clung to the bone. In this surreal moment, cradling the head crown of America’s greatest civil rights leader in his fingers, Withers gazed into the open cavity. Then, ever so gently, he fitted it back on top of King’s head.
“His head was full of paper,” Withers would recall years later, describing in his peculiar, singsong voice how “I put his skull back in his head.”
Withers didn’t take any pictures — not yet. He could have photographed the gore and profited from it. But he opted instead to wait on undertaker Robert Lewis, who’d known Withers for years and who approved his visit to the morgue that night. It was only after Lewis completed his work, dressing King in a dark, silk suit and fleshing out the horrendous injuries, that Withers snapped pictures of King in his casket — the very first of many media pictures taken of King’s body in the aftermath of his shocking murder in Memphis.
“I didn’t take any pictures until Mr. Lewis got him dressed because I thought, ethically, I had no business totally in there,” Withers said. “And so I wouldn’t embarrass the undertaker by taking pictures within his private morgue room.”
Withers told this most sensational story at different times over his life and it intrigued me. I can’t recall when I first heard it. But the more I learned about him the more curious I became. If Jim was right about Ernest being an informant, it seems the FBI couldn’t have found a more resourceful person for the job.