It’s no secret that civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was being targeted by J. Edgar Hoover at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but we now also know that his inner circle of friends and associates also included government informants, including Dr. King’s accountant, a critic, and his own photographer.
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.
One of his most vocal critics Julia Clarice Brown boasted about being an informant and FBI agent.
One of the issues that concerned King was the economic stability of Black Americans, and he called for reparations for Black Americans, something Brown vehemently criticized.
“Well, I say that it is frightening, and it should be frightening to the entire American people, that he has demanded $10 billion; and if he doesn’t get it, then there may be riots this summer,” Brown said in a 1968 interview precisely one week before Dr. King was assassinated. “Martin Luther King is nothing but a blackmailer, and he should be arrested for blackmailing because he certainly has blackmailed the United States government.”
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When the FBI started the Ghetto Informant Program (GIP) to infiltrate civil rights organizations and spy on the activities of activists, Brown reportedly worked with the program. She told Ebony Magazine in a 1968 interview that she was one of the FBI’s informants who worked to dismantle the Communist Party’s infiltration of civil rights organizations.
“The FBI expected plenty of you,” Brown told Ebony. “I had to watch and be able to describe and identify people at meetings. I had to listen very carefully to what was said and who said it. I had to look for identifying marks on people I didn’t know. I had to remember their height, age, color of eyes, etc. I was just nervous all the time. I was driven on one hand by the Communists and on the other by the FBI.”
Brown said she was an FBI spy for eight years and 10 months. She also wrote a book in 1966 titled, “I Testify: My Years As An F.B.I Undercover Agent.”
King’s accountant, James A. Harrison, was also a paid agent for the FBI, as was his photographer, Ernest Withers
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.
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.
Harrison was revealed as an 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.
Renowned civil rights photographer Ernest Withers captured some of the iconic images of the civil rights movement and, in particular, photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, with whom he developed a close relationship.
But Withers was leading a double life. He was a top FBI informant, unbeknownst to the civil rights leaders he was photographing. This information emerged only three years after Withers’ death on Oct. 15, 2007.
The book “Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers” by Preston Lauterbach chronicles Withers’ work as an FBI informant and how he reported back to the agency about the same activists he photographed, The Intercept reported.He
Hefirst photographed Dr. King in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, as King boarded one of the first integrated buses. Soon after, Withers was recruited by the FBI to be an informant. He would trade photographs and names of activists, information about their plans, and contacts for money. He would also provide the FBI with his own thoughts and analysis of the movement. He was an FBI spy for nearly two decades.
His career as an informant ended after Withers was swept into an FBI investigation of corrupt Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, Lauterbach wrote. Withers was caught on tape orchestrating a cash-for-clemency plan to free a young Black man who faced a long prison sentence for a first-time offense.
Photo: Civil rights photojournalist and “photo historian” Ernest C. Withers talks about his picture of Rev. Martin Luther King, right, during presentation of images from his 70-year career, at a special award ceremony at Parsons School of Design in New York, Feb. 14, 2005.(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)/Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)/Julia Clarice Brown admitted to being an FBI informant and agent. (Screenshot: YouTube/Foggy Melon)/ In this July 1, 1971, file photo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, is shown at the graduation ceremonies for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington. Government informants are an age-old investigative tactic that’s as much a part of the FBI’s 110 years of history as J. Edgar Hoover or its “10 Most Wanted” list. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)