Photos by a complex man illustrate a complex era
WHAT DO ROCK & ROLL, BASEBALL, AND civil rights have in common? Today’s answer is going to be Dr. Ernest C. Withers, the man behind some of the best-known photographs of each.
The Memphis-born documentarian got his start as a military photographer while serving in the South Pacific during World War II, but progressed exponentially once the war ended, taking some five million pictures between the 1940s and the 1970s. Returning to Memphis, he opened his own photography studio at 333 Beale Street, and began rubbing shoulders with local music acts such as Elvis Presley, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, and future civil rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
In the beginning, Withers would shoot anything, from family portraits to all kinds of Memphis nightlife. At the time, Withers’ photographs were not of interest to the mainstream press, and he was primarily published in black media outlets such as the Amsterdam News and Jet Magazine.
Everything changed for Withers when he covered the murder trials and open-casket funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, an event that drew blacks and whites alike to the civil rights cause. During the trial of Emmett Till’s killer, Withers defied the judge’s orders against courtroom photography in order to document Mose Wright, a witness to the murder, pointing to identify J.W. Milam, the defendant.
On one hand, Withers was a phenomenal photographer, marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in countless civil rights protests and capturing the oozing tension and emotion. But in 2007, Withers was revealed as a paid FBI informant throughout this same time, providing information leading to the incarceration of dozens of black activists, and tracking MLK, Jr. up to his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Looking at Withers’ body of work, it’s dizzying to see pictures of Rev. King reclining on his bed at the Lorraine Hotel and know that hours later he was dead, possibly due in part to Withers’ information.
Withers, who died in 2007, held awards and honorary doctorate degrees from the Art Institute of Boston, Memphis College of Art, Syracuse University and the University of Massachusetts. In 2004, he received what he considered to be his highest award, the University of Missouri School of Journalism Honor Medal for distinguished service in journalism. The National Association of Black Journalists honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also inducted into the Black Press Hall of Fame.
Sixty of Withers photographs are on display now through March 1, 2014 at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in the exhibit “Pictures Tell the Story: The Work of Dr. Ernest C. Withers.” The BSCC is an engaging environment in which to digest Withers’ work. Comparing the content of his work to the Chattanooga history in the museum shows you that what he was documenting was happening in cities all over the South.
Says Carmen Davis, curator and director of programming at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, “Just like on Beale Street, Ninth Street or the Big Nine was the place to see all of your favorite soul and blues acts. Many of the photos captured in the entertainment section of the exhibition, like the one of Ike and Tina Turner, could just as easily been taken in one of the nightclubs on the Big Nine.”
Reconciling the two dimensions of Withers’ involvement in the civil rights movement is challenging for us now. Davis says it best, “His photo of Emmett Till in the casket or of teenagers getting hosed down at peaceful protests helped to shape America’s views on race relations in the South and moved the civil rights movement forward.
The world needed to see those images. Not to mention the importance of African Americans seeing positive images of black life through his music, sports and religious photos, which served as a tool to uplift a people who had rarely seen themselves portrayed in a positive manner. I think that is the most important part of his legacy to remember and talk about.”
“Pictures Tell the Story: The Work of
Dr. Ernest J. Withers,”
Bessie Smith Cultural Center,
200 E. MLK Blvd.