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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice and Policing

Memphis Police surveillance of BLM protesters has roots in 1960s Panthers

The story of civil rights era informant Ernest Withers offers lessons for the modern age of corrosive surveillance

Ernest Withers aimed his camera through a bramble of twisting oak limbs, sharpening his focus on a home atop a small hill.

He snapped a series of pictures on this overcast winter day, capturing the rambling, two-story frame house from a variety of angles – a wide shot taken through the leafless branches; a closeup of the front porch; and, after walking around into the back yard, a focused view of the rear exit.

It was January 1973, and the home’s residents – members of the local Black Panther Party – were the object of wide fear and contempt in conservative, white Memphis.

The Panthers didn’t realize it, but Withers, a civil rights insider they trusted with intimate details about their jobs, their debts, their political views – even their guns and their romantic interests – was sharing their secrets with the FBI.

As a paid informant, Withers, a professional photographer, also gave agents a range of pictures, including these three he shot highlighting points of entry into the Panther home.

Though memories have faded, activists say it was around then that a squad of police approached the home with rifles.

“We got surrounded,’’ says former Panther sympathizer Susanne Orrin Jackson, now 75. She recalls a rush of sensations – seeing a “horseshoe shaped’’ phalanx of police with long guns aimed at the house and feeling the rapid pulse of shock and adrenaline among the residents inside, who included children.

“We all knew what happened in Chicago,’’ Jackson said of a similar incident a few years earlier: The 1969 police shooting of Illinois Panther leader Fred Hampton, killed in a barrage of gunfire as he slept in his bed during an early-morning raid after an informer sketched the layout of the activist’s apartment. “But it wasn’t just Chicago. The Panthers were being systematically eliminated either by sending them to jail or killing them. Everyone in the house knew that.’’

Though the standoff in Memphis de-escalated without incident, the Panthers’ story offers fresh lessons for this Mississippi River town, where many believe authorities again are engaging in the type of corrosive surveillance that marked the paranoia of the 1960s and ’70s.

A recent lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union contends the Memphis Police Department has trampled on a longstanding consent decree prohibiting the agency from collecting and storing data “relating to any person’s beliefs, opinions, associations or other exercise of First Amendment rights.” The decree, reached in 1978, busted up the wide “political intelligence gathering’’ MPD undertook with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the civil rights era, when those agencies kept secret files on Panther members and hundreds of other politically active Memphians, the overwhelming majority nonviolent, law-abiding citizens.

U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla ruled in October that MPD violated the decree after hearing evidence police used high-tech and physical surveillance to monitor dissenters. Police tracked Black Lives Matter activists and other protesters with a fake social media account, put others on a “blacklist’’ requiring an escort to enter City Hall and even disseminated personal details to employers like FedEx. McCalla has appointed a special monitor to keep it from happening again.

In an age of angst over police overreach, the case has broad implications. The Times Free Press in Chattanooga reports police there are also suspected of tracking activists with bogus Facebook profiles. And a 2016 Georgetown Law Center study found roughly half of adult Americans appear in loosely regulated police databases using facial recognition software. 

If nothing else, the case in Memphis shows if we can’t learn from history we’re indeed doomed to repeat it. Just as MPD now contends its current investigations are aimed at protecting public safety, the city’s long and torturous record of political surveillance is populated with rationales.

So it was when the Oakland, Calif.-based Panther movement reached Memphis in the late ‘60s.

Given this city’s deep-rooted oppression, the Panthers’ message of black empowerment and their open defiance of police brutality resonated with people like Janice Payne, a disillusioned 26-year-old when she became the leader of the Black Panther Party’s small Memphis contingent in 1971.

“We advocate the overthrow of a society that no longer meets the needs of the people,’’ Payne said then. Despite the Panthers’ at times revolutionary rhetoric and isolated shootouts between police and some extreme members in other parts of the country, the Memphis Panthers never posed any serious public safety threat. They were far more focused on civic causes – drawing awareness to sickle cell anemia, trying to feed poor children and working as canvassers in local political campaigns.

Yet they ran into intense official resistance.

Documentation of most of MPD’s spying on the Panthers and other Memphians vanished when the city burned its files as the ACLU first sued in 1976. Much of what we know about these operations comes from recently released FBI records recounting the role of celebrated civil rights photographer Withers as a cog in the government’s Cold War domestic intelligence network here. Though the FBI had dozens of contacts within the movement in Memphis, Withers was among a handful of directed, paid intelligence informants helping detect and contain alleged subversives, agitators and potentially violent individuals as the government waged a secret war on militancy.

The stated purpose was to stem subversion and violence, yet as the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee, later found, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had greatly exaggerated these threats. Targets often involved proponents of the aggressive tactics of nonviolent direct action to affect social change.

As “racial’’ informant ME 338-R, Withers, a World War II veteran and former police officer, relayed a dizzying array of intel on a broad range of individuals and organizations deemed dangerous, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to anti-war groups, communists and Black Power advocates. He turned over membership lists, identification photos and biographical details including occupations, home addresses, phone numbers, auto plate numbers and accounts of political views and associations – details that helped agents catalog the movement.

Though Withers operated as an informer in various capacities over 18 years, efforts intensified in 1967 when his principal FBI handler, Special Agent William H. Lawrence, helped MPD launch its Domestic Intelligence Unit, one of many police “Red Squads” created in response to nationwide political pressures to curb rioting and unrest – the direct link to today’s surveillance controversy in Memphis.

The Panthers got a special dose of attention from the FBI-MPD team.

Withers relayed dozens of tips on the group between 1969 and 1975, providing names of employers and associates as well as details on fundraising. Across 165 pages, Withers’ Panther file reveals no actual or planned violence. Yet driven by FBI Director Hoover’s characterization of the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,’’ the Memphis investigation dragged on for years as the group gradually disintegrated. A 1975 Panther meeting of five people included an undercover cop and Withers.

As a trusted Panther confidante, Withers told agents of benign communications with national leaders in Oakland. He reported weapons inside the Memphis headquarters – a shotgun and two .38-caliber pistols, one in a bedroom and the other in a coffee table drawer – along with a flow of pedestrian details: Panther leader Payne had a mounting debt and faced eviction, he said. She allegedly associated with a prostitute. She and live-in boyfriend John Charles Smith, another Panther, suffered through a series of modest-paying jobs.

“Janice stated in a conversation with source that her main interest was in making money, that the people will not support the Black Panther Party, but that she intends to use the party to make a living,’’ an agent wrote in 1973 after debriefing Withers.

Some readers of these files have misinterpreted such details as harmless or unimportant.

Yet as congressional investigators later determined, the FBI’s “vacuum-cleaner’’ approach to collecting “any and everything’’ was highly intrusive – and undemocratic. Intelligence informers faced few if any restrictions on information they collected. Because targeted groups often knew they were being watched – they just didn’t know by whom – a resulting chilling effect deterred recruits from joining for fear of official reprisals, effectively denying them full exercise of constitutionally protected free speech, dissent and association.

Harm was more than theoretical.

Targets Withers befriended like Quaker activist Allan Fuson were subjected to warrantless searches of phone records after the photographer provided his unlisted number; government workers Bobby Doctor and Rosetta Miller nearly lost their jobs when Withers helped identify them as Black Power sympathizers. Guitarist Mark Allen, a suspected Communist, nearly lost his job, too. Personal details Withers relayed on militant activist Charles Cabbage helped put him on the Security Index, the FBI’s list of dangerous radicals to be rounded up in times of national crisis.

It’s hard to know exactly who all was hurt. Agents occasionally funneled personal details to the Draft Board and, routinely, to MPD, which opened mail, accessed private student and credit records and often harassed activists with petty drug charges or for driving unregistered autos.

Precisely when and why police surrounded the Panther home remains unclear. Available records don’t say. Activist Larry Stone, who like Payne and Smith is now deceased, once wrote that a SWAT team “appeared to be getting ready to charge the house’’ but intervention by attorneys avoided a gun battle.

Tensions had run high for weeks. The very day Withers gave agents photos of the Panther home a trial got underway for five young men – non-Panthers – accused of murder for firebombing a Memphis tavern in 1971 amid unrest surrounding the police beating death of Elton Hayes, 17. The trial stirred protests by civil rights activists who were photographed from the courthouse steps by police and FBI agents. With another incident fresh in mind – an armed standoff in 1971 between a predecessor Panther group and MPD that ended nonviolently – the Panthers received special attention. Perhaps a specific tip led Withers to photograph the Panther home, but records are unclear.

The impact on Withers’ legacy remains uncertain, too. His civil rights photos are national treasures; his FBI collaboration is still being weighed. In retirement, agent Lawrence argued informers like Withers were invaluable in preventing violence. Reports show the photographer at times identified activists who had abandoned militancy or who, in the FBI’s view, could be acquitted of suspicions. Nonetheless, abuses are still coming to light.

Yet, clearly, Withers’ haunting, black-and-white pictures of the Panther home are baleful warnings of the danger unregulated surveillance still poses today, and the corrosive effects suspicion can have when it’s blindly cast on broad groups of people.

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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