This blog is about three men who, between the mid 1950s and the early 1970s, became entangled in the machinery of the Secret Service. Politically, it was a difficult period. In the USA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) believed that the fabric of the country was threatened by Communism, socialism and, to an extent, the civil rights movement. With great zeal it hunted down those suspected of being involved, accusing many of subversion and treason. Of those identified some were imprisoned and some escaped abroad. In the UK, the MI5 (the Military Intelligence, section 5 of the Home Office) was also busy but more discreet.
The three men lived in different countries and it was the story of Ernest C Withers, a photographer living in America, which triggered this blog. Albeit it of a very different nature, his entanglement reminded me of what happened to my father, Harry, a research scientist based in London, and to Rohan’s father, Jim, a diplomat working for the United Nations and based in Geneva.
Ernest C Withers, who lived from 1922 to 2007, was a photo-journalist of repute who documented over 60 years of African-American history. Early in his career he, and several other black journalists, realised that the country’s predominantly white media showed images that demeaned black people and highlighted black debauchery. This position had to be righted, and this he achieved in many ways. Apart from providing newspapers and magazines with iconic ‘political’ images, such as that of Martin Luther King riding a once segregated bus (see illustration), he also took pictures of black musicians and sportspeople, and examples of all of these are displayed in the USA’s leading museums and galleries. In all this work Withers became very close to the black leaders with privileged access to their work and thinking.
Then, three years after his death, it was revealed that Withers had been a double agent, supplying the FBI with sensitive information about the Movement. The revelation, which was seen as a betrayal, was a shock and disappointment – some even believed that the information he passed on was key to the assassination of Martin Luther King, by then a Nobel Laureate. For many, the discovery meant that his legacy was in tatters.
Turning now to my father: throughout his adult life he was aware that MI5 had tags on him and he was frightened as to what they might do – indeed nearly did! The explanation was easy – as a student he was, as were many others, a Communist and, through this was invited to join the ‘Apostles’, an intellectual society in Cambridge whose members then included the future spies Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
When an adult, no one knew of his student affiliations except his close friends, and, of course, MI5. In 1957 he was offered the job of Director of Pharmacological Research with the American company Park-Davis. At the last minute the offer was withdrawn; through the FBI, and thus MI5, the company had discovered his student affiliations which made him unacceptable! Thanks to a letter in Harry’s support from the then Minister of Defence, Park-Davis’ objection “melted away”. But the experience bruised him enormously.
Fourteen years later his past resurfaced. His diary tells that on the 5th August 1971 he received a letter from a Mr Knight of Room 055 at the War Office asking if they could meet. Mr Knight wanted Harry to reveal the identities of “people at the peak of their careers now in a position to do damage” – i.e. people Harry would have known at Cambridge. Harry refused Knight’s request. But the anxiety and fear sparked by this episode and what might follow stayed with him till he died 13 years later.
Jim’s story is different again. When Rohan was in her mid-thirties she applied to become a magistrate. She observed the necessary sessions at court and after being shortlisted and attending two interviews she was told that the next stage was to check her police record. A letter then arrived saying, without explanation, that she ‘was unsuitable to be a magistrate and banned for life’. This blunt, brusque and totally unfathomable statement hurt Rohan enormously – it seemed so unjust. Years later, when working closely with the police, she was told that, in fact she had no police record, the problem was a file with MI5!
Ten years after her rejection and just before her father died she told him the story to which he calmly responded “It was because of me; I have a file at the FBI who share everything with MI5”. He told how during the McCarthy era he had used his diplomatic status to help people leave the USA. While having an FBI record was of no concern to him, the repercussions had jumped a generation to affect his daughter years later.
Secret Services are heartless and have long arms and long memories. Ultimately, becoming involved with them spells trouble.
The illustration shows a photo taken by Ernest C Withers in December 1956 of Martin Luther King as he took a first ride on a desegregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Jack, Sarah, Vanessa, Rohan and Vivien.