It’s no secret that civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was being targeted by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, but in recent years, it has come to light that his inner circle of friends and associates also included government informants, including Dr. King’s accountant.
Some of the people who were privy to Dr. King’s daily comings and goings and his private conversations turned out to be working against King and the civil rights movement.
King’s accountant, James A. Harrison was a paid agent for the FBI and his photographer, Ernest Withers, was outed as a government informant in 2010.
Here are five things to know about Dr. Martin Luther King’s accountant, James A. Harrison.
In 1965, Harrison was recruited to work with the FBI. Harrison provided the Feds detailed information on King’s every move, wrote Taylor Branch in the book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.”
Harrison worked with the infamous Agent 500 — the codename for Memphis police officer Merrell McCullough, who also worked with the CIA. McCullough was photographed kneeling next to Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel just moments after King was shot by an assassin.
Harrison “was an FBI agent proper, whose intelligence work joined with Agent 500 in the days before King’s assassination,” Salon reported.
Accountant Harrison also worked closely with an FBI agent in Atlanta named Alan G. Sentinella. They met weekly and Harrison provided details about King’s itinerary and travel plans, according to the 2007 research paper “Surveillance, Spatial Compression and Scale: The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.” written by Jules Boykoff and published by the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University.
The young accountant was a comptroller for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the time when King was president of the African American civil rights organization. Harrison worked in the Atlanta office of the SCLC, sitting just a few feet from King, Variety reported.
It has been reported that Clarence Jones, personal counsel and a close friend of King, suspected that Harrison was an agent, and told King about his suspensions, Variety reported.
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Harrison was codenamed “AT 13878-S.” The FBI paid Harrison a higher salary than King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference paid him, according to “Surveillance, Spatial Compression, and Scale.”
Harrison accompanied King and a number of other SCLC workers to Memphis during the final weeks of King’s life.
Harrison was revealed as a FBI informant in 1981. In a 2010 interview with NPR, historian David Garrow noted that during the civil rights era, there were many people in Black America giving information to the FBI, but photographer Withers and Dr. King’s accountant Harrison were on a different level than the “casual” informant.
“There are ministers from 1956, 1957 who are coded in FBI files. They have informant code numbers, you know, like, ME338, or you know, AT, you know, 721 assigned to them,” said Garrow, a noted biographer of King. “But they didn’t know that when some friendly local FBI agent would drop by every three weeks to ask them what was going on and they chatted in a friendly, revealing manner … they were being portrayed as confidential informants.
“Now, what’s very different is when you have someone like Mr. Withers, or much more seriously, an SCLC employee – SCLC was Dr. King’s organization – James A. Harrison, who was revealed in 1981, Mr. Harrison and Mr. Withers are both documented to have been taking cash payments from the FBI. And so to my mind that’s what makes it different in kind,” he added. “If you’re taking $20 bills or $50 bills in an unmarked envelope and initialing a little receipt, that’s a whole lot different than just chatting with an agent who drops by your church.”