Was Withers threatened? ‘Yes’, say sons, in debunk of informant claim

kajanaku@tri-statedefender.com | 9/15/2010, 7 p.m.

The discussion was to explore the history of that period and to look at the assertions about the elder Withers as an FBI informant in that context. Tony Nichelson, public affairs director for the Citadel Radio Group, moderated the discussion, which was engineered by Karanja A. Ajanaku, executive editor of the Tri-State Defender.

The taped exchange will air at 7 a.m. Sunday (Sept. 19) on 98.1 The Max, and on 103.5 at 11 Sunday evening.

Ernest C. Withers

As sons of Ernest C. Withers, Billy Withers and his younger brother, Andrew “Rome” Withers, knew that work always was in the picture whenever they were in their father’s photography studio.

Such was the case in early 1968.

“We were putting together stories for the Tri-State (Defender) to meet his (the elder Withers’) deadline, and also a segment of pictures that we were getting ready to deliver,” said Billy Withers.

“These two agents come in – and we had spent an hour (on) these photos – and they came in in a brutal way, knocked the pictures all off in a threatening way,” Withers recalled. “We began approaching them and daddy pushed us back to say, ‘hey, just calm down. Go in the other room, go in the other room.’”

Directly confronting a recent, high profile newspaper account that paints a picture of Ernest Withers as a prolific informant for the FBI, Billy Withers said, “If there was any involvement, it was a threatening, harassing thing.”

The next weekend or a few days later, said Withers, there was a second confrontation with one of the men who came into the studio.

“He drove up – daddy and I were walking – and said, ‘you going on a story down in Mississippi. You better watch your back. I got a lot of folks down there, I got a lot of them sheriffs down there,’” said Withers.

Given the isolation of Mississippi back roads and what African-American journalists had to do for their own protection, the implication was clear, said Withers. “This was to me a threat.”

Rome Withers

‘I know as a human, my father was not a perfect man. He made mistakes. But I know that my daddy was a man of integrity and morals.’ – Andrew “Rome” Withers. (Photos by Shirley Jackson)

Rome Withers listened intently as his brother recalled the incidents. Then came his turn to speak. It was, he said, a difficult time, in that the Withers family is in the midst of arranging for the funeral of another of the Elder Withers’ sons, Perry Withers.