As a black woman in the South in the 1960s, Rosetta Miller-Perry knew the sting of discrimination and the angst that came with pushing for elusive change.
She found the perfect job, working in Memphis for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a federal agency that investigated human rights abuses and recommended reforms to Congress.
What Miller-Perry didn't know was her colleagues in the FBI office upstairs were secretly monitoring her.
They acquired photographs of her and assembled information about her political views, her allegiances, even her love life.
"It's scary even when I think about it now,'' said Miller-Perry, 77, the owner and publisher of The Tennessee Tribune, a Nashville newspaper with a largely African-American readership.
"They could have really destroyed me. I would not be where I am today if I had lost my government job.''
Details of the FBI's spying on Miller-Perry appear among newly released records from the informant file of the late civil rights era photographer Ernest Withers who died in 2007 at age 85.
The records, 348 pages, were released under court order to The Commercial Appeal, which last year sued the FBI in federal court in Washington to unravel Withers' secret life as a "racial'' informant.
The records sketch a 14-year relationship between Withers, a freelance news photographer who took seminal photos of the civil rights movement, and the FBI, which first recruited him in 1958 as the movement gained its initial momentum.
He remained an informant until at least 1972, collecting a paycheck while helping agents monitor the pulse of Memphis' African-American community, deemed vulnerable by the FBI to subversion, first from Communism and later from black militantism.
Heavily redacted in places — an unspecified "volume'' of pages were withheld entirely — the records add sharper focus to a murky period when federal and local law enforcement maintained "red squads'' or intelligence units that secretly spied on citizens whose political views or actions were deemed dangerous to the nation's domestic security.
Some of the most celebrated figures of the period — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, singers Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin — appear in reports copied to Withers' file, though the FBI is withholding many of them.
Tapping Withers' "many contacts in the racial field,'' the FBI used the photographer to help monitor activists and celebrities visiting Memphis and to keep tabs on local figures, too, including militant Lance "Sweet Willie Wine'' Watson, Church of God in Christ Bishop G.E. Patterson, Tennessee Council on Human Relations deputy director Gerald Fanion, future judge Floyd Peete and future University of Memphis professor David Acey, among others.
"It had nothing to do with enforcing federal statutes,'' said historian Athan Theoharis, who reviewed Withers' file at the newspaper's request and believes much of the FBI's '60s security probes here were not lawful investigations.
"They were monitoring these activists … Their sense was these people were dangerous because of their political views.''
At the same time, Withers helped the FBI infiltrate a violent, black power group, The Invaders, whose members were convicted of crimes ranging from drug offenses to wounding a police officer.
The released records show Withers was first recruited in 1958 then in 1961, agent William H. Lawrence, who ran Communist and subversive investigations in Memphis, specifically requested Withers as a PCI, or Potential Confidential Informant. But Withers received a bad recommendation from the Memphis Police Department. He'd worked at MPD from 1948 to 1951 as one of its first black officers but was fired for taking kickbacks from a bootlegger.
"In view of the above, it is not believed that Withers can meet the Bureau's reliability requirements as a (racial informant) wherein his activities can be directed or controlled,'' Lawrence wrote.
''However, because of his many contacts in the racial field, plus his indicated willingness to cooperate with this Bureau, as attested by his recent furnishing of information, it is recommended that Withers be considered as a PCI. He will be contacted regarding general criminal matters. If in the course of these contacts he volunteers any information relating to security matters or racial matters, it of course will be accepted.''
Withers was simply too well-connected to pass on. As a freelance news photographer working for black newspapers nationwide, he'd covered the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a black teenager murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, and shot pictures of King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy riding one of the first integrated buses in Montgomery, Ala. He was present with his news camera for the movement's pivotal Memphis moments, too, including the 1960 library sit-ins and the integration of city schools in 1961.
"My father was everywhere,'' said Withers' daughter, Rosalyn Withers-Guzman. "That's what his life was. For them to miss him would have been missing the mark.''
The released records suggest the FBI used Withers sparingly over much of the '60s. The released reports include a handful between 1960 and 1967 and they are heavily redacted. There are references to others the FBI withheld entirely.
But by 1964, Withers had a "170 file'' — the FBI's classification for an "extremist informant,'' or one monitoring organizations and individuals with radical political views — and the Bureau meticulously tracked his career, clipping news stories about his 1963 beating by police in Jackson, Miss., his involvement with the Boy Scouts, his unsuccessful 1966 run for Shelby County Constable, even stories about his sons and father.
The released records show Withers became prolific in 1968 — he received a code number, ME 338-R, assignments and cash that made him one of just five paid racial informants in Memphis — as the sanitation workers' strike converted Memphis from a sleepy, civil rights movement outpost into a hotbed of activism.
Although the FBI withheld records that spell out specific things Withers told agents, including informant reports, it's possible in some instances to pinpoint things the photographer said.
For example, Withers told agents about a dinner King had with suspected militants the day before his April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis and gave them background on Rev. James Lawson, the Memphis pastor who invited King to town to support the city's striking garbage workers.
This is possible in half a dozen instances in which either Withers' informant number, ME 338-R, or his file number, 170-70, are cited as a specific sources of information in FBI reports copied to his file.
Reports released from Withers file contain other instances in which Withers is identified as the likely source of information.
One such case involves a 1968 report on Miller-Perry. Known then simply as Rosetta Miller, she was a 33-year-old Civil Rights Commission clerk transitioning to a field representative, a job that involved interviewing activists.
In March 1968, as the Sanitation Strike frayed nerves with daily public marches, skirmishes between police and demonstrators and uncollected garbage piling up in yards across Memphis, the FBI inventoried activists, "radicals'' and others it deemed capable of inflaming an already volatile situation.
Miller-Perry was deemed to be one such person. Records show on March 12 someone gave the FBI two photographs of Miller-Perry and told agents she "is the type who is a rumormonger and one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.''
Although the informant's name is redacted, indicators point to Withers as the source. The single-page report was copied to two files: The FBI's file on the Invaders and Withers' informant file. The report also bears Withers' code number or "source symbol number'' — ME 338-R.
A second report from October 1968 refers to Miller-Perry as a "controversial Negro'' and alleges she'd married a teacher and "the marriage lasted only one week.'' The report, also copied to Withers' file, was withheld by the FBI in its recent record release, but was located by the newspaper among Invader records released under the Freedom of Information Act in 1977, The report is one of more than 30 reports copied to Withers' file the FBI is now withholding.
Miller-Perry said in an interview this summer the report is inaccurate.
Theoharis, the historian, said the FBI often gathered personal information on activists to discredit them.
"It had nothing to do with legitimate security concerns. It had to do with obtaining derogatory information on individuals,'' said Theoharis, a retired Marquette University professor given security clearances to review FBI records for Congressional and White House investigations and the author of the books on the FBI including, "Spying on Americans.''
Other reports copied to Withers' file assert the late James Bevel, a member of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had "weird sexual hangups,'' make references to photos the FBI was given of priests at St. Patrick's Catholic Church who were friendly with suspected militants and show agents monitored Democratic candidates with radical political views.
Bobby Doctor, Miller-Perry's boss at the Civil Rights Commission, said he believes she got caught in the middle of the FBI's long-running investigation of him and it nearly cost both their jobs.
Doctor helped found the Black Organizing Project, or BOP, an umbrella organization promoting black pride and self determination. BOP was affiliated with a spectrum of activists, including some violent members of the Invaders at one end and professionals and intellectuals at the other.
Doctor said the FBI lumped them all together.
"They tried to get me fired even though I didn't do anything illegal,'' said Doctor, who said FBI agents gave his boss "an inch-thick'' report on his activities.
Yet in the wake of 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark and Memphis' own March 1968 incident when street thugs were blamed for dissolving a King-led march down Beale into looting and melee, many in the FBI believed they were at war. In handwritten notes agent Lawrence left to his daughter following his death in 1990 he wrote that his informant Withers was motivated by "his concern for the peaceful and effective preservation of the civil rights movement.''
Withers' daughter said she believes her father never did anything to harm the movement, and that his informant work is overshadowed by his larger photographic record documenting a tumultuous era.
"He's done everything in his power to record and document a nation that was going to change,'' Withers-Guzman said. "He always was going to protect life and character.''
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