Andrew Young, the former black civil rights leader and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., was asked about the recent revelation that famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the FBI. A growing number of people believe Young downplayed the significance of this betrayal.
Andrew Young was quoted saying, “The movement was transparent and didn’t have anything to hide anyway,” the King disciple and former Atlanta mayor told The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. Andrew Young, now 78, said he isn’t bothered that Withers secretly worked as an informant while snapping civil rights history.
Young also stated, “I always liked him because he was a good photographer. And he was always (around),” he said. Young viewed Withers as an important publicity tool because his work often appeared in Jet magazine and other high-profile publications.
“I don’t think Dr. King would have minded him making a little money on the side,” he said.
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From December 1963 until his assassination on April 4, 1968, King was the target of a secret FBI surveillance that, ostensibly, sought to determine whether his efforts to gain fairness and equality for blacks was influenced by communists. But it quickly became what the FBI would later admit was an “unjustified and improper” attempt to discredit King, according to the 1976 report of a U.S. Senate committee that investigated these abuses.
That effort took the FBI far afield of its mission. In 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover approved a plan by the bureau’s domestic intelligence division to replace King with “a new national Negro leader.” After approving it, Hoover said he was “glad to see that light has finally” come to the unit, which was primarily responsible for uncovering spies and counterintelligence threats.
Withers, who had nearly unfettered access to King and his small circle of advisers, was just a bit player in the FBI campaign.
While the FBI never found evidence that King was being influenced by communists — which is what likely moved Young to say the movement had nothing to hide — the FBI’s push to undermine King’s leadership left the movement he led with a lot to protect.
Tipped off about his whereabouts, the FBI bugged King’s telephones and hotel bedrooms for years and tried to use the overheard conversations to pit other civil rights leaders against him, break up his marriage and to get journalists to expose his personal failings. And when the worst of what it got amounted to little more than salacious pillow talk, the FBI continued to press its attack on King — even after his death.