Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers

Norton. Jan. 2019. 288p. notes. index. ISBN 9780393247923. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393247930. BIOG
Ernest Withers (1922–2007) documented the civil rights movement as a photographer, but another side to his seminal career is now coming to light; "he had spied on the civil rights movement for pay." Does his status as an FBI informant cast a different glow on some of the most influential images of the century, including those of Emmett Till and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Lauterbach (former visiting scholar, Rhodes Coll.; Beale Street Dynasty) posits an investigative biography to expose Withers's secret FBI history, but this bold assertion never comes to the forefront of the narrative. Withers's own story is weaved into the lives of the subjects behind his best-known photos, and Lauterbach shows that much may be attributed to his need to support ten children on a small salary that the FBI could supplement. Although the author succeeds in capturing the tensions of the era, the FBI plot fails to jell.
VERDICT This fascinating glimpse behind the creation of iconic civil rights photos never quite flushes out the main thesis exploring Withers's FBI informant career. Marc Perrusquia's A Spy in Canaan offers a more thorough exploration.

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