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The Associated Press
Published: 14 July 2012

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- While Rosetta Miller-Perry worked for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in Memphis decades ago, her colleagues in the FBI office upstairs were secretly monitoring her, according to newly released records.

The records show that the FBI acquired photographs of her and assembled information about her political views, her allegiances, even her love life, according to The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/M6WnhI ).

``It's scary even when I think about it now,'' said Miller-Perry, 77, the owner and publisher of The Tennessee Tribune, a Nashville newspaper with a largely black readership.

``They could have really destroyed me. I would not be where I am today if I had lost my government job.''

Details of the FBI's spying on Miller-Perry appear among records from the informant file of the late civil rights era photographer Ernest Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85.

The records, 348 pages, were released under court order to The Commercial Appeal, which last year sued the FBI in federal court in Washington to unravel Withers' secret life as a ``racial'' informant.

Withers remained an informant until at least 1972, collecting a paycheck while helping agents monitor the pulse of Memphis' African-American community, deemed vulnerable by the FBI to subversion, first from Communism and later from black militantism

Heavily redacted in places, the records add sharper focus to a murky period when federal and local law enforcement maintained ``red squads'' or intelligence units that secretly spied on citizens whose political views or actions were deemed dangerous to national security.

Some of the most celebrated figures of the period -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, singers Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin -- appear in reports copied to Withers' file, though the FBI is withholding many of them.

Tapping Withers' ``many contacts in the racial field,'' the FBI used the photographer to help monitor activists and celebrities visiting Memphis and to keep tabs on local figures, too.

``It had nothing to do with enforcing federal statutes,'' said historian Athan Theoharis, who reviewed Withers' file at the newspaper's request and believes much of the FBI's `60s security probes here were not lawful investigations.

``They were monitoring these activists . Their sense was these people were dangerous because of their political views.''

The released records suggest the FBI used Withers sparingly over much of the `60s. The released reports include a handful between 1960 and 1967 and they are heavily redacted. There are references to others the FBI withheld entirely.

The records show Withers became prolific in 1968 -- he received a code number, ME 338-R, assignments and cash that made him one of just five paid racial informants in Memphis -- as the sanitation workers' strike converted Memphis from a sleepy, civil rights movement outpost into a hotbed of activism.

Although the FBI withheld records that spell out specific things Withers told agents, including informant reports, it's possible in some instances to pinpoint things the photographer said, the newspaper reported.

For example, Withers told agents about a dinner King had with suspected militants the day before his April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis and gave them background on the Rev. James Lawson, the Memphis pastor who invited King to town to support the city's striking garbage workers.

Reports released from Withers' file contain other instances in which Withers is identified as the likely source of information.

One such case involves a 1968 report on Miller-Perry. Known then simply as Rosetta Miller, she was a 33-year-old Civil Rights Commission clerk transitioning to a field representative, a job that involved interviewing activists.

In March 1968, as the Sanitation Strike frayed nerves with daily public marches, skirmishes between police and demonstrators and uncollected garbage piling up in yards across Memphis, the FBI inventoried activists, ``radicals'' and others it deemed capable of inflaming an already volatile situation.

Miller-Perry was deemed to be one such person. Records show on March 12 someone gave the FBI two photographs of Miller-Perry and told agents she ``is the type who is a rumormonger and one who will give aid and comfort to the black power groups.''

Although the informant's name is redacted, indicators point to Withers as the source. The single-page report was copied to Withers' informant file. The report also bears Withers' code number or ``source symbol number'' -- ME 338-R.


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