At the top of the stairs he saw the blood, a large pool of it, splashed across the balcony like a grisly, abstract painting. Instinctively, Ernest Withers raised his camera. This wasn’t just a murder. This was history.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here a few hours earlier chatting with aides when a sniper squeezed off a shot from a hunting rifle.
Now, as night set over Memphis, Withers was on the story.
Slipping past a police barricade, the enterprising Beale Street newsman made his way to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel — King’s room — and walked in. Ralph Abernathy and the others hardly blinked. After all, this was Ernest C. Withers. He’d marched with King, and sat in on some of the movement’s sensitive strategy meetings.
A veteran freelancer for America’s black press, Withers was known as ‘the original civil rights photographer,’ an insider who’d covered it all, from the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955 to the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and, now, the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.
As other journalists languished in the Lorraine courtyard, Withers’ camera captured the scene:
Bernard Lee, tie undone, looking weary yet fiery.
Andrew Young raising his palm to keep order.
Ben Hooks and Harold Middlebrook gazing pensively as King’s briefcase sits nearby, opened, as if awaiting his return.
The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they invited in that night was an FBI informant — evidence of how far the agency went to spy on private citizens in Memphis during one of the nation’s most volatile periods.