Sunday, September 19, 2010

Post No. 148b: As Is the Case with the Truth, Personal Responsibility is Rarely Plain, and It’s Never Simple



There has been a news story floating around for the past couple of weeks, which is so troubling that, although covered in various media vehicles, few have had anything of real substance to say about it, apparently needing additional time to digest it.

It is the story of a highly-regarded photographer who covered the civil rights movement during the 1960s. In fact, he was with Martin Luther King and his entourage on the day that Dr. King was shot in Memphis.

When we first encountered the story, it seemed so… let us say, implausible, that we questioned its authenticity.

And then we noticed that it was a Yahoo! News Blog article, which provided some credibility.

It told the story of how famed photographer Ernest Withers had another profession, namely that of FBI informant, advising the FBI of the activities and tactics of many of those in the civil rights movement, including Dr. King.

After reading the story, we were so… stunned, that we could do little other than simply pass it on to some friends of the Institute, without comment.

One of them noted that the story originally appeared in a Memphis area newspaper, the Commercial Appeal.

Upon reading the original piece, we were even more stunned. Maybe you will, like one of our readers, think that it was no big deal and not find it surprising that someone would rat out Dr. King to J. Edgar Hoover.

But something still bothers us about this story. We’re just not quite sure what to say.

Please take the time to digest both articles. It’s a….

To whom did Withers owe responsibility, if at all, to anyone or any entity?

To his nation, to the FBI, to his family, to Dr. King and others in the civil rights movement, to the movement itself, to his race….

You tell us. We’d like to hear.

11 comments:

  1. People are checking out this post like crazy, and no one has anything to say about Withers' conduct?

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  2. I have mixed feelings about his conduct. Much depends upon his personal motives in the situation and no one seems to know what they were. He could have been just making some cash and had no scruples. Or he could have been worried about the influence of radical (and potentially violent) fringe groups. Unless he wrote his memoirs, we have no way of knowing. And he apparently never did.

    People will form opinions, though, based upon their own personal biases.

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  3. When I read about this in the news I was just a little surprised about the FBI being interested in the peaceful civil rights movement and Dr. King. Since Mr. Withers is not alive, one can only speculate and there is plenty of room for that. We do not know if he was a willing informer or if he was forced to do it. He could have been just very patriotic and thought he did the right thing... Way too many possibilities here. As for his sense of responsibility, I'm not going to touch that as I do not know if he had a choice or not.

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  4. Thanks DOUGLAS.

    We suspect that whether one has mixed feelings, or feelings clearly on one side or the other, potentially turns on lots of factors, one of them being age, and some others being geographic location, population density, the status of blacks in your region, religious philosophy, views re the Jim Crow system, etc.

    There are many blacks in their 80s and 90s, who grew up in the Depression and particularly in the South, who say that MLK was nothing compared to his predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Vernon Johns. He is actually considered the "Father of the American Civil Rights Movement" by many.

    Johns wore overalls, and spoke in a tone and style which appealed more to blacks in the rural areas and small towns of the South. Dr. King was more "citified," and wore suits, and appealed more to those in the North and the more densely populated urban centers of the South. (By the way, to some extent, it was those same big city dwellers who, toward the end of the 1960s, felt that Dr. King was too polite and accommodating, and began to suggest that more force or "black power" needed to be used.

    In evaluating the purported threat of Dr. King, it is also important to keep in mind the individual in the background, constantly whispering in Dr. King's ear, namely Bayard Rustin. He was the force behind King's adherence to the principles of Gandhi, the organizer of the March on Washington, and he worked behind the scenes for a reason - it was strongly suspected that he was gay. Not only was homosexuality illegal in many places during that era, Rustin felt that being on the front lines of the battle would compromise the movement, and lead people to say that the gays and the Negroes were working together.

    When one stops to think about all of the religious denominations which viewed (and still view) homosexuality as a sin, then you can appreciate the problematic nature of his relationship with Dr. King.

    This was very complicated stuff at the time.

    DOUGLAS:

    You frequently raise very good points in commenting on our pieces, and you have done it once again here, although we do not have the time at this point to flesh this one out, that being the "personal motivations" of the actor.

    We'd like to hear further from some other readers as to whether we should judge someone based on their personal motivations.

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  5. 'Spector,

    In the 1960s, the results of the Communist Party's infiltration of the labor movement was still fresh in the minds of most older adults. Like it or not, the "Red Scare" was very real. The lingering vestiges of it are still with us today in the form of mainstream media bias, the National Education Administration and other unions which no longer serve any real purpose except to perpetuate themselves.

    Of course the FBI was concerned about Mr. King being turned by the Communist Party; why would they not be? If it was that easy for the FBI to turn Withers, then would it not be equally as simple for the CP to turn others in the Civil Rights Movement to their own purposes? Humans are humans, and they can be swayed -- knowingly or unknowingly.

    And why would the FBI not be interested in the membership and the activities of such groups as the Black Panthers and the Invaders? Such "organizations" used violence in pursuit of their goals and would rightfully be considered terrorist groups today. Do you think that such militants never engaged in espionage themselves? Of course they did. Can that practice, when employed by the militants, then be glorified or condemned any more than it can in FBI? Of course it can't.

    Short story: the Civil Rights Movement was a success. Was it because or in spite of the FBI’s intervention? We will probably never know, but -- either way -- that does not diminish its importance. If I take anything away from this story, it is that perhaps the FBI intervention resulted in less bloodshed as Civil Rights Movement ran its course. Was that not a good thing?

    I don’t believe that this story is the dynamite revelation which the Memphis Commercial Appeal would have us believe. It is forty-plus-year-old news which, when viewed from its contemporary 1960s perspective, is not all that earth-shaking. Quite honestly, I can think of several more worthy (and immediate) projects upon which the newspaper might have expended two year's research . . .

    Jeff Dreibus

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  6. Interesting WSTEFFIE:

    A voluntary versus an involuntary informant. Hmmph, interesting. We had not considered that.

    In the eyes of many, one should never "sacrifice" another for one's personal reasons.

    But there is something else that you wrote which really struck us: "...there are way too many possibilities here...." That seems like a very responsible approach to take, particularly because the photographer is deceased.

    In essence, you are withholding judgment. However, we suspect that there are many similar situations outside the civil rights arena and involving less famous figures than MLK, where folks would be quick to judge.

    This one is real interesting.

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  7. You're marvelous LUCKY, simply marvelous. We were waiting for someone to flesh this out and relate it to the Communist Party influence.

    It is definitely part of what makes this one SOOOO complicated.

    Just the other day, C-Span2 Book TV had a panel presentation on the Tea Party Movement. During the panel discussion, it was brought up that the Tea Party was using some of the tactics of Saul Alinsky, with whom we were unfamiliar. Consequently, we looked him up.

    What struck us during the panel presentation, once Alinsky's name was brought up, was how quickly former House Majority Leader Richard "Dick" Armey acknowledged the effectiveness of Alinsky's tactics, but also attacked him and said that he was a "bad person."

    Alinsky is generally considered the "Founder of American Community Organizing," and we all know that is viewed different ways by different people in our society. Needless to say, the Communist Party was big on community organizing.

    Nice contribution Jeff, and welcome back. You have once again reminded us why we enjoy the manner in which you make your arguments supporting your position, even if our position is diametrically opposed to yours. Of course, we never let on if it is!

    Now it's getting good.

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  8. During the panel discussion, it was brought up that the Tea Party was using some of the tactics of Saul Alinsky, with whom we were unfamiliar. Consequently, we looked him up.

    You should watch Glenn Beck more often. He brings him up on a regular basis. But in reference to the administration and its supporters. Chris Matthews also brought his name up at least once... in praise.

    Alinsky wrote...

    Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

    ...which doesn't sound like a Tea Party primer. It was published in 1971, just about the height of the radical movement that started in the 60's.

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  9. Thanks Douglas:

    We imagine that there are lots more broadcasts of different varieties which we should watch with more frequency.

    You may recall that we are big on C-Span, Turner Classic Movies, the History Channel, the Andy Griffith Show, and Tom and Jerry cartoons. All of this serious stuff has begun to affect the number of Malcolm in the Middle episodes we can watch on various channels.

    The mention of Alinsky and the Tea Party in the same room had folks cackling throughout the panel presentation. However, Dick Armey made it VERY CLEAR that tactics are different from goals, and that while his tactics were highly effective, Alinsky's goals were bad, and Alinsky was a bad person.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Douglas:

    We imagine that there are lots more broadcasts of different varieties which we should watch with more frequency.

    You may recall that we are big on C-Span, Turner Classic Movies, the History Channel, the Andy Griffith Show, and Tom and Jerry cartoons. All of this serious stuff has begun to affect the number of Malcolm in the Middle episodes we can watch on various channels.

    The mention of Alinsky and the Tea Party in the same room had folks cackling throughout the panel presentation. However, Dick Armey made it VERY CLEAR that tactics are different from goals, and that while his tactics were highly effective, Alinsky's goals were bad, and Alinsky was a bad person.

    ReplyDelete

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