What did former president Ronald Reagan and famed Memphis civil rights photographer Ernest Withers have in common? They were both accused of being "snitches" for the F.B.I. And in both cases, there's much more to the story than is implied by that simple, damning epithet.
Back when J. Edgar Hoover ruled the F.B.I., the bureau was relentless in its efforts to find communists and communist sympathizers. Being labeled a "commie" was a sure ticket to career purgatory. And being in any way against the established political order was a good way to become labeled a commie.
Reagan's reputation as an informant was overblown. According to his biographer, John Meroney, there is no evidence Reagan ever snitched on his friends or colleagues. Mostly, he told the F.B.I. little that they couldn't have gotten from public sources — who, for example, attended certain Screen Actors Guild meetings. It was a reflection of the times. Meroney quotes one SAG source as saying: "When the F.B.I. appeared at your door, you met with them."
Hoover's F.B.I. kept files on thousands of Americans, from ordinary citizens to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. Campus organizations involved in protesting the Vietnam war were infiltrated as well. (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that my name and photo were in an F.B.I. file or two, based on a couple of student marches I helped organize.)
The F.B.I. was also intensely involved in monitoring and infiltrating the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King's every move was observed and reported, as were those of many other prominent civil rights leaders. And as was the case with Reagan, it's likely that most people contacted by the F.B.I. did not refuse to speak with them.
As documented in this week's cover story, Withers' relationship with the F.B.I. was not a secret. He spoke about it on a couple of occasions. How useful the information he passed along was is open to question. Withers is no longer here to defend or explain his actions.
And, like Reagan, Withers' life's work transcends any attempt to define or label him in a singular fashion. Biographers pick at the files and records our deceased notables leave behind, hoping to bring history to life. But in the case of Ernest Withers, the thousands of pictures he left us say more about the man than historians could ever write.