Former '70s activist recalls Memphis police surveillance was all over the place
'It's just like in the movies,' former '70s activist recalls. 'You
could spot them a mile away.'
By Marc Perrusquia
December 19, 2010
Slow and steady, the marchers made their way down Main Street, then
over to Front.
They were a collection of black militants, white war protesters and
self-proclaimed socialists, banded together on a march through
Downtown Memphis on April 4, 1973, the fifth anniversary of Dr.
Martin Luther King's assassination.
One marcher, Allan Fuson, a young activist with a bulging FBI file,
was used to being followed around by men in dark suits who would
often take his picture. They were out again this day. So Fuson
decided to take his own pictures: On the plaza in front of City Hall
he captured three plainclothes police officers, one with a long-lens
camera around his neck -- Jerry Davis, a commander with the Memphis
Police Department's domestic intelligence bureau.
On Front Street, Fuson shot another picture: Ernest Withers, the news
photographer who doubled as an FBI informant, staring into the
viewfinder of a camera dangling from his neck. "I could tell when
they were watching. It's just like in the movies,'' said Fuson, now
61. "You could spot them a mile away."
Fuson, now a Cincinnati businessman, became very familiar with MPD's
intelligence bureau, known as the Red Squad. Working in tight
collaboration with the FBI, MPD's squad kept files on numbers of
citizens from the late 1960s until 1976, when a leak forced it to
close. A subsequent lawsuit led to a federal order in 1978 banning
political surveillance at MPD. For Fuson, a conscientious objector
and the son of Quakers, that surveillance included teams of
plainclothes officers who often tailed him and his associates as well
as an undercover cop who grew long hair and infiltrated Fuson's small
band of activists, the Young Workers Liberation League.
That officer, Byron "Gene'' Townsend, followed a typical path for
undercover political agents: Graduating from high school in 1964 in
Parsons, Tenn., he was drafted into the Army, served two years in
Vietnam, then took a job at MPD. From his first day on the force in
July 1969 he was placed undercover, police records show, working
under a code number -- Agent 503 -- as he infiltrated a range of
left-leaning groups at Memphis State University, including the local
chapters of Students for a Democratic Society and Vietnam Veterans
Against the War.
Paydays consisted of secret meetings in parking lots where an MPD
official handed him an envelope stuffed with cash. They wanted no
paper trail linking Townsend to MPD.
"It got to a point where it wasn't the money anymore, it was the
thrill,'' said Danny Townsend, brother of Gene, who died in 2003
following a 33-year career at MPD in which he rose to the rank of captain.
Townsend's undercover reports, filed with MPD and, in turn, given to
the FBI, show the agent was a regular at Fuson's small strategy
sessions where four or five Young Workers members discussed issues
like the war and police shootings of black citizens. In separate
reports in July 1970, the undercover agent noted that Fuson owned
books by Communist leader Gus Hall, that he shared an apartment with
a black activist and that he was a supporter of liberal U.S. Sen.
Albert Gore Sr.
Once, Fuson believes, someone at MPD or the FBI took things so far as
to interfere with a job he'd lined up as a medical assistant at
"Here I was, clean cut. No drugs. They were excited about it. They
said, 'Shoot, this is our boy,' " Fuson recalled. "The FBI, the Red
Squad, somebody went to them the day I was to report. The lady who
had been so excited about me was so cold on the phone. Like water
frozen in a glass. I lost the job."
MPD's intelligence bureau continued operating until war protester
Eric Carter learned the department had a file on him. Like the file
on Fuson, there was nothing criminal in it -- just reports on his
activism. When Carter asked for a copy under the state open records
act, MPD burned it. Then, as the American Civil Liberties Union
prepared a lawsuit, MPD burned the bulk of its intelligence files --
six filing cabinets' worth.
Then-U.S. Dist. Judge Robert McRae ruled in 1978 that MPD could no
longer "engage in political intelligence." His consent order forbids
any electronic or covert surveillance, the keeping of files or "any
law enforcement activities which interfere with any person's rights
protected by the First Amendment."
"They, by God, ran me out of Tennessee,'' said Carter, now a Houston
attorney. Carter said he believes his applications to law school in
Memphis and Knoxville were sabotaged because of his political
beliefs, and he eventually went to law school in Texas.
"Those were dangerous times. Everybody has to realize that."
-- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545
Memphis FBI agent led cadre of informants that included Ernest Withers
By Marc Perrusquia
December 19, 2010
Seven times he called that night. No answer. Then again in the
morning -- still no luck.
An obviously anxious William H. Lawrence, a retired FBI agent, seemed
to fear the worst -- that a key confidential informant was about to be outed.
Lawrence, the puppet master over a web of informants in Memphis
during the 1950s and '60s, had gone to great lengths to protect
Ernest Withers' identity.
To an unsuspecting public, Withers was the celebrated photographer
whose iconic images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery bus
boycott and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike helped propel the
civil rights movement.
To Lawrence, he was confidential informant ME 338-R.
Now, their secret seemed imperiled by a Congressional committee
investigating FBI surveillance surrounding King's 1968 assassination
As Withers was headed to a closed-door appearance before the
committee on Nov. 22, 1978, the two Memphians -- informant and
handler -- finally connected by phone.
"I told him ... that I had never revealed or disclosed his identity &
did not know how committee learned of his identity," Lawrence wrote
in a forceful, urgent scrawl on scratch paper.
In his notes, which alternately refer to Withers by name and by his
informant number, Lawrence cleverly advises the photographer not to
lie about his spying while simultaneously scripting out a set of
answers for him.
"...I could not tell him what to say -- However, IF his confidential
relationship with me had been based on and motivated by his concern
for the peaceful and effective preservation of the Civil Rights
movement ... and that IF his purpose in cooperating with FBI was to
detect and deter violence ... and not for mere monetary gain, that he
should say so."
Saved by the agent's family following his death in 1990 at age 70,
the handwritten notes provide further insight into Withers' covert
work for the FBI. The notes identify Withers as a rare breed of
informant, one of only five "racial" informants in Memphis in 1968
who were paid, and confirm what sources have said -- that he was
nearly revealed in the 1978 probe.
More significantly, they allow a first-ever glimpse into the private
world of William Harvey Lawrence, the shadowy, resolute intelligence
agent who had Memphis wired in a relentless search for Communists,
militants and subversion in the 1950s and '60s.
Together with family photos, letters of commendation from FBI
director J. Edgar Hoover, internal bureau memos and an assortment of
personal writings -- he saw King as an "irresponsible" radical who
encouraged riots -- the notes paint a complex portrait.
At home, Lawrence was an everyday Memphis family man. In a
cookie-cutter ranch house in the suburbs near Getwell Road and Park
Avenue, he lived with his wife, Margaret, and their two daughters. A
Chevy-driving, church-going Republican, he enjoyed an occasional
cigar, listened to jazz, watched baseball on TV and regularly walked
his basset, Beulah around the neighborhood.
At work, he became the quintessential Cold Warrior. Heading the FBI's
Memphis domestic intelligence operations, he battled communism during
the '50s, rooting out subversive influences in trade unions and civil
rights organizations, and fighting social disorder through the
turbulent '60s. His large stable of sources involved not only a
handful of paid informants such as Withers, who were supervised and
given assignments, but dozens of unpaid sources in the black
community, including the leadership of the local NAACP and key
members of the ministry, as well as moles within the ranks of the
white media and in politics.
"They were just A-plus performers. (Lawrence and his FBI colleagues)
had the entire black Memphis community wired,'' said David Garrow,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who said the FBI's inroads into
the civil rights movement are believed to have been far more limited
in cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham.
Reverberations of that spy network are still felt today. The FBI's
domestic spying and its treatment of King, including a fierce,
five-year counterintelligence effort to "neutralize'' the leader,
have left many Americans believing the agency had a hand in his
murder, despite three formal investigations that found the FBI played
no role in the assassination.
Lawrence's legacy is especially palpable in Memphis. He helped set up
a separate domestic intelligence bureau at the Memphis Police
Department, a sort of FBI Lite, where undercover agents infiltrated
organizations such as the Invaders, a black-power group, and anti-war
groups at Memphis State University. When activists learned of the
spying, which included keeping dossiers on hundreds of Memphis
citizens, they sued, winning a judge's order that banned MPD from
conducting political surveillance -- a ruling that still affects the
police agency when investigating street gangs and terrorism.
"The extent of spying in this town was enormous," said Bruce Kramer,
a Memphis attorney whose suit led to the order. Kramer sees parallels
between the '60s surveillance and the current war on terrorism, with
its unprecedented searches and alleged profiling of Americans of
Middle Eastern descent, and he questions if anything's been learned
"The extent of the paranoia of the '60s seems to be an echo and a
reoccurring theme from the House Un-American Activities Committee.
They saw a Communist under every bush. They saw a threat from every
group that, when they looked in a mirror, didn't look like them."
* * *
Betty Lawrence pulled out a pile of papers from a dusty box.
They were the remnants of her father's 27 years in the FBI, a career
that started in 1943 after a shaky start in life. Lawrence was
attending private college in his hometown of Marietta, Ohio, and
failing, when an FBI recruiter paid a visit. Suddenly, he had a
purpose. His F's became straight A's. Once in the bureau, he was
assigned to a series of small offices before landing in Memphis in
October 1945 -- with a $3,976-a-year salary.
"Daddy believed in what he did,'' said Betty, his younger daughter,
recalling the agent's long work days and modest pay.
True to her memory of her father's work ethic, she came across of
photo of him coming home through the back door with a bundle of files
under his arm, dressed in a suit and one of those famous skinny FBI
ties. At home, in his shirt sleeves, agent Lawrence reviewed the
day's reports or curled up with a copy of the Daily Worker, the
Communist Party newspaper he subscribed to under a thinly veiled
alias, William Harvey, his first and middle names. A tender father,
and an animal lover, he regularly walked his dog around the Park
Crest subdivision, trailed, like the Pied Piper, by his two girls and
a line of neighborhood children. But often his job dominated his time.
"Work was a big part of his life," recalled daughter Nancy Mosley,
64, a retired librarian in Charlotte, N.C.
In the stack of papers was a small notebook agent Lawrence kept,
filled with his handwritten impressions of King. Titled, "BLACK POWER
MEMPHIS & M.L. KING Aspects prior & after 4-4-68," the notes reveal
no personal animosity for King. Yet, they make clear that, despite
the leader's nonviolent views, Lawrence believed he was the very sort
of dangerous radical the government needed to watch.
"(The) dividing line between super-militant nonviolence and
super-militant violence is often very thin -- King tried to straddle
and bridge the two. Success depended on the charisma of one man
(King)," he wrote. "His concept that each man had the right and moral
duty to accept or reject laws that met with his favor or disfavor
confused the ignorant and confused and gave a license to those prone
to violate the law anyway."
Betty Lawrence cringed as she handed the notebook to a visitor.
"If you read this, you'd think Daddy hated Dr. King," she said.
In truth, her father supported civil rights, she said. While a fan of
arch-conservatives like William F. Buckley, Lawrence was fiscally
conservative and socially tolerant. He eagerly worked civil rights
cases throughout the Memphis FBI office's broad jurisdiction in West
Tennessee and North Mississippi. Daughters Betty and Nancy recall
hardly seeing their father in the summer of 1964, following passage
of the landmark Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in
voting and segregation in public accommodations.
Lawrence also led the FBI's local war on the Ku Klux Klan,
splintering the terrorist organization with seeds of distrust spread
with help from informants who handed over the United Klans of
America's secret mailing list.
In 1966 the FBI mailed klansmen a series of anonymous postcards, the
first featuring a cartoonish sketch of a hooded klansman on a
barstool with a martini and a hooded female beside him. "Which Klan
leaders are spending your money tonight?" the card asked. "Think!"
On its heels came another, drawn in the same lampooning style,
depicting a surprised klansman as his hood is suddenly lifted from
his face by a set of robed arms reaching from behind. "Someone is
peeking under your sheet," the card says.
"Daddy never left the slightest doubt that (discrimination) was
wrong," said Betty Lawrence, 61, an attorney in Asheville, N.C.
But it was the Cold War that defined Lawrence's career -- and it
would propel him on a path toward Withers and King.
In the anti-Communist fervor that gripped America after World War II,
domestic security became a top priority at the FBI. By the early
'50s, Lawrence and a partner were running the bureau's domestic
intelligence operations in Memphis, earning kudos for their efforts.
Much of it was tedious work. Lawrence paid regular visits to the
offices of the NAACP and checked in with labor union officials to
counteract the American Communist Party, which was recruiting in the
area. Occasionally, there was a true spy adventure.
One such incident occurred on a rainy night in November 1954 when
Lawrence, then 35, tapped informants to apprehend Junius Scales, a
fugitive Party official who had been hiding out in the Communist
underground for three years, fleeing from town to town. Lawrence and
his colleagues surrounded Scales as he stood at the corner of Jackson
Avenue and McLean -- the very spot where a Memphis couple, both
secret members of the Party, were to pick him up. The effort earned
praise from director Hoover.
"The manner in which you developed information establishing the
whereabouts of Scales, making possible his apprehension, is certainly
worthy of special recognition," Hoover wrote Lawrence in a personal
letter of commendation on Nov. 30, 1954. "It is a pleasure to commend you."
The Scales case would become a landmark in the great American battle
pitting national security against civil liberties. Among mementos
Lawrence saved was a program from a play, "The Limits of Dissent,"
written in 1976 about Scales' life.
Although other Communists were prosecuted under the Smith Act, which
made it a crime to advocate overthrowing the U.S. government, Scales
was the only one imprisoned under its membership clause, which
criminalized simply joining the Party. Convicted in two sensational
trials, he was sentenced to six years in prison. He served 15 months
before President John F. Kennedy commuted his sentence in 1962
following protests from a range of celebrities and political figures
-- King among them.
"It was really the fight against racism, and fascism, and the
struggle for trade unionism that led me to the Party," Scales later
wrote of his conversion to communism. "It made me believe in
socialism, believe that socialism could make manual labor more
meaningful... But I would say it was the Negro Question that really
got to my consciousness."
The "Negro Question" troubled the FBI, too. The term would appear
repeatedly in the title of FBI reports filed by domestic intelligence
agents assigned to keep watch on black Americans. The fear was that
years of mistreatment would propel African-Americans toward
communism, revolution or some other form of subversion. Vigilant
agents, Lawrence among them, were on orders to develop sources to
help keep watch -- sources like Withers.
* * *
Withers' intersection with the U.S. House of Representatives' Select
Committee on Assassinations in November 1978 was a product of two
interlinking concerns: The FBI's long harassment of King, and the
suspicion of many Americans that the agency had a hand in his death.
Congress moved in 1976 to re-examine King's assassination following
disclosures that the FBI waged a five-year counterintelligence effort
against the civil rights leader that included tapping his phones,
bugging his hotel rooms and leaking information to discredit him. In
1963, agents mailed secretly recorded audiotapes to King's office
along with an anonymous letter that seemed to suggest he commit suicide.
The campaign started as a national security investigation after an
informant told the FBI one of King's key advisers, New York attorney
Stanley Levison, had been a Party fundraiser. The investigation never
revealed any Communist involvement by King. Historians believe it
morphed into harassment, in part, because of Hoover's animosity toward King.
When the assassinations committee reviewed King's murder, the
overwhelming evidence against King's confessed assassin, James Earl
Ray, led to a question: Did the FBI somehow influence Ray to kill
King? Pursuing that theory, the committee reviewed scores of FBI
files, including numbers of informant files, looking for any link
between the FBI and Ray, who was a racist and career criminal.
"We were highly motivated to find it ... but we couldn't link him up
with the FBI, directly or indirectly,'' said the committee's chief
counsel, G. Robert Blakey, now a law school professor at Notre Dame University.
But with the FBI on trial, Lawrence was subpoenaed on Nov. 21, 1978,
when he testified that the agency had conducted no electronic
surveillance on King while he was in Memphis.
Lawrence also was asked about a key, unnamed informant. Part of the
committee's interest in the informant involved reports he'd given the
FBI on two meetings King had with members of the militant black-power
group, the Invaders, one on the day before his assassination.
Lawrence's personal writings, as well as FBI reports, show the bureau
feared King's associations with a militancy rising within some
circles of the civil rights movement. King's meetings with the
Invaders alarmed the FBI, yet his purpose was purely peaceful. He
hoped to secure the group's cooperation in leading a peaceful march
in support of the city's striking sanitation workers. Just a week
earlier -- on March 28, 1968 -- King led a march through Downtown
Memphis that dissolved into a riot, and many blamed the Invaders for
Lawrence closely monitored it all, and he testified in 1978 that
during the sanitation workers' strike he and the informant spoke
almost daily, sometimes in carefully arranged face-to-face meetings.
"Periodically, we would meet in person under what we hoped were safe
conditions to personally exchange information, go over descriptions,
any photographs, things of that nature," the agent testified, saying
the informant was paid as much as $200 a month -- $15,000 a year in
Lawrence's notes identify the informant as Withers, the ubiquitous
Beale Street photographer whose freelance news coverage provided a
Lawrence testified that only "four or five" of his informants were
paid to report on racial matters. A Justice Department report said
there were in fact five such informants in Memphis. The identities of
the other four remain unknown.
Lawrence's notes say Withers was to testify in a closed session on
the day after the agent's public testimony. The committee's records
are sealed, and The Commercial Appeal couldn't independently verify
Withers in fact made it before the committee. However, details in the
notes indicate Withers was in Washington that day.
Two members of the assassinations committee listed in Lawrence's
notes, Louis Stokes, now 85, and Walter Fauntroy, 77, said they have
a faint recollection the committee was interested in Withers. That
interest wasn't central to King's murder and its focus has faded from
memory, they said.
* * *
"I knew Daddy had such things as informants," said Betty Lawrence,
who, as a teenager, saw a range of her father's "friends'' come in
and out of the Lawrence home. Once, when she did a college paper on
civil rights, her father sent her to interview two of his friends --
Kay Pittman Black, the venerable reporter at the old Memphis
Press-Scimitar newspaper, and Maxine Smith, the longtime executive
secretary of the Memphis NAACP.
FBI records show Smith was coded as an "extremist informant" or one
reporting on extremist organizations. She says although she talked
with Lawrence many times, she never considered herself an informant,
and was never paid. Black died in 1997 at age 61. FBI reports
indicate she wrote numerous articles focusing on violence and
criminal acts within the Invaders. She received assistance writing
those stories from the FBI as it tried to undermine community support
for the group.
Among Betty Lawrence's keepsakes is a family portrait shot in the
living room of their East Memphis home at Christmas 1967: Her father
sitting in a cushy armchair, daughters Nancy and Betty sitting on
either side on the armrests, and wife Margaret standing behind them.
Nancy and Betty say they have a clear memory of the photographer --
"This was a fellow Daddy worked with. And he was introduced to us as
Mr. Withers. He was Daddy's black photographer friend,'' Betty Lawrence said.
She's one of four people -- a former FBI employee and three surviving
relatives of agents -- who've shared accounts in recent weeks that
further explain Withers' affiliation with agent Lawrence and his
domestic intelligence unit.
Though each was familiar with the relationship between Lawrence and
Withers, none could say exactly when and how it started. Trying to
determine the full scope of Withers' informant activities, The
Commercial Appeal sued the FBI last month in Washington for access to
his informant file.
Federal law allows the FBI to protect identities of informants even
after death, and the agency is asking U.S. District Judge Ricardo M.
Urbina to dismiss the suit. Withers died in 2007 at age 85. The
11-page answer by Justice Department attorney Wendy M. Doty contends
the newspaper is seeking records "protected from disclosure.'' Doty's
answer also denies the newspaper's allegation that documents already
released by the FBI confirm Withers was an informant.
"They seem to be straining very hard not to admit what was clear from
the FOIA documents -- that Ernest Withers was an FBI informant," said
Charles Tobin, the newspaper's attorney.
Betty Lawrence said she believes Withers helped the FBI investigate
racial crimes in the early 1960s before he was asked to monitor the
civil rights movement as militants on its outer fringes began to
"I don't see it as a great betrayal on the part of Mr. Withers. A lot
of my father's work was focused on the white extremist threat. I
don't think there was much reason to be conflicted early on," she said.
Barbara Sullivan, the daughter of Lawrence's longtime domestic
intelligence partner, Hugh Kearney, has a similar theory. She recalls
a warm reception when she and her father ran into Withers at a
Midtown drug store a couple of years before Kearney died in 2005 at age 89.
"He said (Withers) was a fine gentleman. He always tried to do the
right thing,'' said Sullivan, 56.
She believes Withers first had contact with the FBI as agents
investigated a series of civil rights crimes starting in the '50s.
Sullivan played a video, shot in 2000, of 84-year-old Kearney
discussing his career with a granddaughter for a school project. On
the tape, Kearney talks of forays into the hinterlands on civil
rights cases, including Fayette County's 1960 Tent City crisis, in
which landowners threw black sharecroppers off their land in
retaliation for registering to vote, and another involving a white
mob that stormed a jail and kidnapped a black rape defendant, shot
him and threw his body in a river -- an obvious reference to the 1959
lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Miss. As a
much-in-demand freelance photographer for America's black press,
Withers covered both cases extensively.
Regardless of how the connection was made, FBI records show domestic
intelligence agents such as Lawrence were under constant pressure to
develop racial informants -- those who could help monitor racial
politics and disorder -- particularly following the riots of the mid-
Finding a well-connected informant like Withers, who could help
connect the dots between subversives and their sympathizers, was
"I don't want to be a source for anything. But I knew that (Withers)
and Bill (Lawrence) were very good friends. You can take from that
what you want,'' said Betty Norworth, a secretary for more than 50
years in the FBI's Memphis office.
Lawrence's success in recruiting informants stems in part from his
long tenure in Memphis. Many agents receive regular transfers, yet he
built relationships in Memphis over 25 years. His first partner,
Kearney, grew up in Memphis and graduated from Catholic High School;
his second partner, Howell S. Lowe, also spent years in Memphis
before retiring here.
Norworth attributed something else to Lawrence's success recruiting
informants -- a genuine warmth.
"He was just everybody's friend. And you could believe everything he
said,'' she said. "He dropped little gifts by. But all of that came
out of his pocket. He got to be real fond of people who worked with him."
* * *
Lawrence retired in 1970, ironically, to the home state of Junius
Scales -- North Carolina -- where the agent had been taking family
vacations for years in the mountains around Spruce Pine. For all his
years of spying, of suspicions and keeping secret files, his final
years were quite public, volunteering for the Special Olympics and
teaching Sunday school.
"He wasn't always the most forgiving person. ... He learned Christian
forgiveness. The last 20 years of his life was committed to community
service,'' daughter Betty said. "I never saw someone grow so much spiritually."
Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545