Written By: By Marc Perrusquia

Published By: Melville House

Reviewed By:  James L. Dickerson

Shakespeare did not have a monopoly on the art of betrayal, palace intrigue, or mercenary machinations. Former Memphis cop turned photographer Ernest Withers, who made a name for himself as a civil rights photographer, could match the Bard every step of the way.For decades, Withers was revered for his images of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. But there was another side to Ernest Withers. Of all the photographers in Memphis, white or black, it was Withers who documented the rise of music in the city. He snapped pictures of Elvis in the early days on Beale Street, Elvis with B.B. King, and just about every blues performer you would want to see a photo of. An affable man who also blended in just about any situation, he was always in the right place at the right time.

Memphis’ black population had someone they could be proud of—a civil rights and celebrity photographer who seemed destined for greatness.
Sadly, Withers was living a secret life as a FBI informant. He glad-handed Martin Luther King, then before the day was done he betrayed him by telling the FBI everything that King and his associates were discussing.
Withers’ betrayal of the Civil Rights Movement might never have come to light without the persistence of Marc Perrusquia, a reporter at The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, the once influential morning newspaper that won a Pulitzer in better times for its stance against the KKK. At Perrusquia’s urging, the newspaper sued to obtain Withers’ files from the FBI.

Of course, Withers’ was not the only African American to take money from the FBI to spy on civil rights leaders. In Mississippi, the FBI purchased black spies for as little as $50. Also paying black informants during this time was the racist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a super-secret state agency that may have been involved in some of the state’s high-profile civil rights murders.

A Spy in Canaan is an important book and author Perrusquia is to be commended for pursuing the story. The book documents Withers’ activities as an informant and puts his betrayal in perspective. Perrusquia is a reporter, not necessarily a literary writer, so the book suffers at times from being too “journalistic,” but that is a minor criticism considering the accomplishments of the book. It is highly recommended for libraries and anyone interested in the civil rights movement of the 1950s through the 1970s.

James L. Dickerson is the publisher of NEW ORLEANS REVIEW OF BOOKS.