A Spy in Canaan

How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement

Renowned photographer Ernest Withers captured some of the most stunning moments of the civil rights era — from the age-defining snapshot of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., riding one of the first integrated buses in Montgomery, to the haunting photo of Emmett Till’s great-uncle pointing an accusing finger at his nephew’s killers. He had a front row seat to history as a man trusted and beloved by the movement’s inner circle . . . but few people know that Withers was also an informant for the FBI.

Memphis journalist Marc Perrusquia broke the story of Withers’s secret life after a long investigation culminating in a landmark lawsuit against the government to release hundreds of once-classified FBI documents. Those files confirmed that, from 1958 to 1976, Withers helped the Bureau monitor pillars of the movement including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, as well as dozens of civil rights foot soldiers.

Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, A Spy in Canaan explores the life, complex motivations, and legacy of the fascinating figure Ernest Withers, as well as the dark shadow that era’s culture of surveillance has cast on our own time.

MARC PERRUSQUIA is journalist for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., where he has worked the past 29 years. He has won numerous national awards for both feature writing and investigative reporting, a specialty honed over three decades working in a city long considered among the nation’s most corrupt.

“Filled with dramatic scenes, sharply etched characters and insights into FBI political surveillance, the civil rights movement and the journalistic process… As A Spy in Canaan adeptly shows, history is not always so clear-cut.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Fascinating.” —Signature

“As everyone from Memphis knows, Marc Perrusquia is an indefatigable sleuth who has done much to tease out the most important stories from our city’s intriguing and tragic past. In this ground-breaking and at times shocking examination into the conflicted life of a towering Civil Rights Era figure, we are reminded that the truth is often far more complicated than we could ever imagine.” —Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail

“Marc Perrusquia’s pioneering investigative reporting exposed how a renowned black photojournalist was actually a longtime paid informant for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Powerfully and perceptively, this remarkable true-life detective story shows how many lives can be damaged by secret intelligence operatives run amok.” —David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross and Rising Star

A Spy in Canaan is an important contribution to the history of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the role of the FBI in monitoring and attempting to contain activists challenging the racial status quo in the Memphis area. Perrusquia’s sobering tale provides a context for understanding the contemporary debate over race and social justice.” —Athan Theoharis, author of Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan

A Spy in Canaan is more than just an eye-popping tale of intrigue.… The book is part social history, part scintillating biography, and part investigative-journalism procedural — and an all-around rousing read.” Chapter 16