Written By: By Marc Perrusquia
Published By: Melville House
Reviewed By: James L. Dickerson
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.