A SPY IN CANAAN

Marc Perrusquia

This regrettable book on an important subject is not worth reading. It is about Ernest Withers, photographer for some of the Civil Rights Movement and an admitted FBI informant, a spy the book calls him. The prolix prose of long breezy sentence conveying little belabor the reader. It is difficult to learn what Ernest Withers actually did, other than take photographs and befriend everyone. 

The goal of the FBI was to find links to communists, investigate Black Power persons and to uncover criminal activities. For 120 pages the author describes none of Wither’s activities to any FBI goal. Indeed, most of the front end of the book recounts tales since 1970, beyond the 1950-1960s years. This volume is not a history at all.

No description of the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of  journalists and photographers is told. The author is incapable of setting the book within the Fifties and Sixties. Indeed the author notes Wither’s passed on a lot of gossip, some of it true, little of it embarrassing and most of it nonsense. No attempt is made to describe a journalist’s job – trials and tribulations – covering and within the Civil Rights Movement. It seems odd that a journalist [the author] writing about another journalist would completely avoid this issue. 

One is surprised to find Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, mentioned twice in the first 30 pages of the book. Fred Hampton’s death is also mentioned but it did not happen in an apartment but in a house. [Roy Wilkins, Ramsey Clarke, Search and Destroy.] Apparently Withers had nothing to with the map supplied by another FBI informant in Chicago. Most of Wither’s work and activities are around Memphis, his hometown, and along the Mississippi. Was there a difference between the Civil Rights Movement there and elsewhere? Did the FBI recognize the difference? Did Withers try to inform and correct the FBI? [Indeed, did any informant attempt to delineate and clarify theory and action for the FBI, or was the FBI so arrogant that it believed itself capable of doing so]. Finally, the “Northern” Civil Rights Movement had been affected by Black Power and city riots. Those occurred in late March 1968 during Doctor King’s first Memphis march in support of the Sanitation strike. The author of SPY neglects to give any history, background or casual references to Northern impulses invading or influencing Memphis where the Civil Rights Movement of the South had engaged.

Hope for a cogent story in SPY vanishes with each page, and each unnecessary sentence. It becomes unforgivable that within the writing, that the author uses I a first person pronoun. The author himself had nothing to do with the activities of the 1950-1960s Civil Rights Movement ,and he also fails to justify in the text why he feels privileged to use I.

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