"Pictures Don't Lie" Debuts This Weekend

Pictures Tell the Story : Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History
This weekend, CNN's Soledad O'Brien looks at a story from the Civil Rights era that has an air of mystery.

Why did Ernest Withers, the renowned Memphis civil rights photographer, also act as a paid informant for the FBI?

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Withers had intimate access to the top civil rights leaders of the day, especially Martin Luther King Jr., but also to some of the movement's more militant fringe. It all began in 1955, when Withers, who had specialized in photographing black celebrities, took intentionally shocking open-casket pictures of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager who was beaten and shot in Mississippi. From there, Withers was always on the scene, all across the South.

'Pictures Don't Lie' is a thoughtful exploration of the debate that has gathered around Withers's legacy, as well as an opportunity to consider the breadth of his work. After he died in 2007, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Withers was secretly paid to provide government agents with insider details, whereabouts and names. Activist and entertainer Dick Gregory, an early subject of Withers's pictures, tells O'Brien that he now thinks of the photographer as a 'black Judas' who betrayed the trust of those he photographed.
Withers 1975

Others - including Andrew Young, Earl Caldwell, Maxine Smith and three of Withers's children - are far more circumspect and forgiving, to the point of wondering if he even caused any harm. Withers made unforgettably historic images without much pay or recognition, which may have made the FBI's offer more tempting. He took the secret to the grave, and there it might have remained, except that his name was not redacted from certain FBI documents made available through a Freedom of Information Act request.

'Pictures Don't Lie' is refreshingly open to nuance, and O'Brien conducts precise interviews with people still trying to understand Withers's motives. The theme comes back around to the striking quality of his photos. Some may look at the pictures differently now, but the point is that they are looking.

Pictures Don't Lie airs Sunday at 8-9 p.m. ET on CNN.
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