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Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and  political reporting.

Perrusquia: Conspiracy theory about MLK's Memphis march skirts essential facts

By Updated: April 04, 2019 4:58 PM CT | Published: April 04, 2019 1:38 PM CT

Good conspiracy tales never really die. Like a ‘pop-up’ monster in a horror film they get shot down over and over, only to rise, again and again.

So it is with an old story surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination in Memphis. Legend has it the FBI sabotaged his last demonstration – a boisterous, mass march down Beale Street that tragically erupted in exploding glass and rampant looting. The march was just one week before the civil rights leader’s murder blocks away at the Lorraine Motel 51 years ago today.

As the story goes, agents hired provocateurs to smash store windows and start a riot designed to embarrass King, leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement. The march's failure brought him back to Memphis, where he met his death, the following week. The tale was included in a 1970s docudrama on King broadcast to a national television audience. Conspiracy duo Mark Lane and Dick Gregory made it a cornerstone of a book.

Even the great investigative reporter Les Payne gave it traction, reporting in Newsday in 1976 that “FBI informants actively participated in the rioting in Memphis in 1968’’ – a powerful suggestion, albeit unproven, that the bureau instigated the chaos that day.

Finally, in 1978, a multimillion-dollar congressional investigation explored the claim as part of a sweeping re-examination of King’s murder. Subpoenaing testimony from retired FBI agents and poring through informant files, the committee found no concrete evidence to substantiate it. Finally, it seemed, the matter was laid to rest.

Yet now it lives again.

A new book by Preston Lauterbach resurrects the FBI-sabotage allegation and inserts an unlikely figure, the late civil rights photographer Ernest Withers of Memphis. Lauterbach suggests Withers, who secretly doubled as a paid FBI informant, may have been compensated to disrupt King’s march. He cites an interview the photographer gave later in life with a German sociologist in which he tells how he helped movement foot soldiers buy and cut 2x2 pine sticks that were then attached to the “I AM A MAN’’ placards used in the demonstration on March 28, 1968. As the march lurched forward, young people in the back of the demonstration ripped sticks from placards, using them like baseball bats to smash store windows.

Lauterbach’s account gained its own traction. He told a national radio audience of his suspicions on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Newsweek.com ran a large spread. His just-released book, “Bluff City: The Secret Life of Ernest Withers,” pivots on this sensational tale. The sabotage theme starts early, in the second chapter, and builds steadily to a crescendo over the last fourth of his book.

“Ernest Withers was well aware of the atmosphere of violence permeating his city, so it's hard to excuse his help in distributing the lumber on March 28 as a miscalculation, and it's especially difficult to accept that a longtime, well-compensated FBI operative made such a mistake innocently,’’ Lauterbach writes.

The bigger miscalculation seems to be Lauterbach’s headlong dive into this old, discredited tale.

I know a thing or two about this because Lauterbach relies heavily on my research and reporting to make his case.

As a journalist at The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis where I worked for 29 years, I broke the story of Withers’ secret life as a paid FBI informant. In my own book, “A Spy In Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement,” published last year by Melville House, I tell how Withers collaborated with the FBI over 18 years to help the law-enforcement agency keep a suspicious watch on the movement.

Unraveling Withers’ hidden world of spying involved some intensive gumshoeing – poring through stacks of aging FBI reports and interviewing former agents, cops and activists. That trail took me in 2010 to a drafty old antebellum home in the mountains of Asheville, N.C., where I met Betty Lawrence, daughter of the late FBI special agent William H. Lawrence, who recruited Withers and controlled his actions for the bureau. She shared her father’s personal mementoes – letters of commendation from J. Edgar Hoover, old news clippings and agent Lawrence’s own handwritten notes confirming Withers’ collaboration with the FBI.

Betty is vexed – and hurt – by the new allegations suggesting her father was behind the 1968 riot that resulted in one death, scores of arrests and massive property damage. 

“It’s a grave injustice, both to my father and to Mr. Withers,’’ she said. She says no one – not Lauterbach, not NPR, not Newsweek which repeats the author’s assertion that agent Lawrence engaged in “treachery’’ – has contacted her to get her family’s views.

The backdrop for the sabotage allegation involves a set of handwritten notes Betty let me copy. Her then-retired father wrote them in 1978, telling how Withers was questioned behind closed doors that year by the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations – a secret Withers took to his grave. His statement to congressional investigators has never been released. Although some answers remain sealed, one thing is clear:

The committee, which included King’s longtime friend and ally, then-District of Columbia delegate Walter Fauntroy, thoroughly and aggressively investigated the sabotage claim at a time when the trail was still relatively warm – and dismissed it.

“…The committee found no basis for a conclusion that the FBI, directly or through its informants, provoked the violence,’’ the committee said in its final report, though it did accuse the FBI of “unwarranted neglect’’ for failing to alert march organizers of advance intel it picked up on the distribution of the pine sticks and possible violence. The best evidence suggests the violence erupted spontaneously because of pent-up frustrations, flaring tempers, poor planning by march organizers and a degree of provocation by young militants.

But here’s the kicker:

Skimming over the committee’s negative finding, Lauterbach writes that an overlooked, partially redacted Teletype in the FBI’s file on the volatile Memphis sanitation workers strike may hold answers. The April, 2, 1968, Teletype sent days after the riot authorizes a $75 payment to an unknown individual.

Whatever the payment was for, it doesn’t involve Withers. We know this thanks to a landmark lawsuit. After my initial investigation, The Commercial Appeal sued the FBI for access to Withers’ informant file, resulting in the release of hundreds of once-classified photos and reports – the foundation for my book and Lauterbach’s, too. Under terms of the mediated settlement, the National Archives and Records Administration, which processed the records release, could not redact any reference to Withers by name or by his code number, ME 338-R – a unique identifier.

Recalling this, I re-contacted NARA after the Newsweek story in January. According to an email I received in February from archivist James Mathis, the unredacted version of the document Lauterbach heralds “does not mention Ernest Withers nor does it contain his source code number.”

“I hope there is a way that we can get this out in the public,’’ Betty Lawrence told me, encouraged by the news. 

The irony, she says, is that her father spent his career trying to prevent violence. As the FBI’s chief domestic intelligence agent waging the Cold War in Memphis over a quarter century, Bill Lawrence battled communists, subversives and extremists to protect national security and preserve civil order.

And that’s the real story here: The government’s overreach and abuse of individual rights.

In the FBI’s jaundiced view, those deemed dangerous involved a broad swath of law-abiding individuals and organizations, from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to campus activists, Vietnam War demonstrators and Black Power advocates.

Withers played a considerable role in these abusive investigations. As a trusted movement insider, he used his incredible access to turn over membership lists, identification photos and biographical details including occupations, home addresses, phone numbers, auto plate numbers and accounts of political views and associations – details that helped agents catalog the movement.

Withers was involved in a number of intelligence abuses – jobs were jeopardized and unlisted phone numbers he relayed let agents conduct warrantless searches of long-distance charges to detect names of associates – but sabotage wasn’t one of them.

With even the most modest degree of skepticism, one must ask why Withers would agree to be part of something that threatened to destroy Beale Street, the chief economic zone for black Memphians, where he earned his livelihood running a popular photography studio. The better explanation is the ubiquitous Withers played many roles: Informant. Newsman. Movement insider. Even by Lauterbach’s account, Withers and others sawed up the lumber at the direction of local movement leader H. Ralph Jackson, hardly an enemy of King’s. Indeed, he marched arm-in-arm with King as the violence exploded. Likely, the activists cut and distributed the sticks never thinking that others might weaponize them.

I’ve asked Betty Lawrence several times over the years if her father’s papers mention anything more that might shed light on this. No. Nothing, she says. Given the FBI’s antipathy toward King – its documented efforts to destroy him politically – the notion of a such a plan doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. But short of something substantial – something credible – any serious journalistic undertaking isn’t possible.

Until and unless that happens, it’s time to give up the ghost.

Let’s lay this die-hard monster to rest.

Topics

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ernest Withers

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