Monday marked the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. During the latter years of his life, King was subject to extensive FBI scrutiny. OK, that’s much too kind.
What King was subjected to was surveillance and harassment that bordered on criminal, which is why I’m using this anniversary to call for a bipartisan congressional committee that will pressure the FBI into releasing — unredacted — all its files about the bureau’s informants and the surveillance of all civil rights and anti-war groups.
And before people at the FBI or the Department of Justice get their undergarments in a bunch, don’t blame me. Blame CNN.
It was CNN that aired a documentary called “Pictures Don’t Lie” several weeks ago. The subject was Ernest Withers, one of the first black police officers for the Memphis, Tenn., Police Department and a renowned civil rights photographer.
It was Withers who took the famous photo of King riding in the front of a Montgomery, Ala., bus shortly after the successful boycott. When Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in 1968 — which brought King to the city where he met his untimely end — Withers snapped photos of that event too.
Last September, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal ran a story not to praise Withers — who died in 2007 — but to expose him as a paid FBI informant from 1968 to 1970 who passed on information about militant groups and those suspected of being sympathetic to them.
According to the Commercial-Appeal story, Withers was exposed due to a clerical error that gave his informant number. The bureau, according to the story, “still aggressively guards the secret of Withers’ activities. The one record that would reveal the breadth and detail of his undercover work — his informant file — remains sealed. The Justice Department has twice rejected the newspaper’s Freedom of Information requests to copy that file, and won’t even acknowledge the file exists.”
It’s high time someone brought the folks who run the FBI back to reality and make them accountable to Congress and the American people. There is really no good reason not to release Withers’ informant file. The man is dead, for heaven’s sake.
What he did took place more than 40 years ago. And if, as former FBI agent and current Fulton County, Ga., Sheriff Theodore Jackson contends, Withers only did his civic duty and nothing wrong, then what is the bureau hiding?
At any rate, the man’s already been outed as an FBI informant. I say out ‘em all. And if there’s any compelling reason this information shouldn’t be revealed to the American people, then I don’t want people in the FBI — who’ve been elected to absolutely nothing — making that decision.
I want elected officials making that decision, members of Congress who realize that they, at least, are accountable to someone. FBI honchos didn’t grasp the accountability concept in J. Edgar Hoover’s day and they don’t grasp it now.
Examiner columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to Sudan.