Withers, Ernest C.
Ernest C. Withers
Ernest C. Withers was one of the foremost photographers of the civil rights era, documenting important developments in African-American culture during the 1950 and 1960s. He covered civil rights demonstrations, pivotal criminal trials, milestone events in desegregation, and the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists throughout the South. Through his photography Withers also produced an important record of African-American entertainment in the mid-twentieth century, finding many notable subjects in the Beale Street neighborhood near his photography studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
Withers was born in Memphis on August 7, 1922. His life spanned decades of social turbulence in the South, from institutional segregation through the civil rights movement. Withers said in an interview with Robert Franklin of Arkansas State University that his first interest in photography came when his sister bought a camera for her boyfriend in the 1930s, and the boyfriend did not want the camera. Withers inherited it and began taking photographs at school, a hobby that remained with him into adulthood.
Trained as Photographer in the Army
Withers married Dorothy Curry shortly after graduating from high school, and she was soon pregnant with their first child, Joshua. During World War II Withers served in the Army and was sent to the Pacific Theater. He was assigned as the driver for the company commander and developed a rapport with the commander, who helped him secure an appointment to the Army photography school at Camp Sutton in Monroe, North Carolina. Withers excelled in his studies, and the army sent him to Pearl Harbor and then to the island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. Among his photographic assignments for the Army, Withers documented the construction of bridges and dams and took pictures of the African-American soldiers involved in the projects. The Army eventually cut funding for photography in the unit, and Withers made extra money taking personal photographs for soldiers to send home as keepsakes.
When Withers returned to Memphis his father wanted him to take the civil service examination and join the local post office, but Withers resisted. "My father thought I was somewhat crazy," Withers remembered to Franklin, "that I would not become a member of the Memphis Post Office." In 1947 Withers had two children, and his wife was pregnant with a third; he realized he needed lucrative work to support his family. Withers eventually took the service exams and was drafted into the Memphis police force in 1948, as one of nine black police officers in a "police your own" policy that had recently been created in the highly segregated Memphis Police Department. Withers and his fellow black officers were told to concentrate on handling disturbances in black neighborhoods and were not allowed to detain or arrest white citizens.
Withers was assigned to the predominantly black neighborhoods near Beale Street, one of the city's largest entertainment districts. He and his fellow officers were expected to keep peace inside such venues as Club Ebony, Club Paradise, Club Handy, and Currie's Club Tropicana. As an African American, Withers had access to an environment that was inaccessible to most white photographers, and he spent most of his free time shooting pictures of the black entertainers and patrons of the thriving Beale Street club district.
Withers remained with the police force until 1951 and then decided, with financial assistance from his brother, to open his own photography studio on Beale Street. Withers and his brother used money from the G.I. Bill to buy a small building and some basic equipment, and he began looking for paying work as a photographer. Though Withers initially found few profitable assignments, he carried his camera everywhere and amassed a record of the changing Memphis environment throughout the 1950s.
Opened a Studio in Memphis
From his studio on Beale Street, Withers photographed many of the most notable figures in Memphis entertainment, taking photos over the years of hundreds of musicians, including Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Elvis Presley, and Tina Turner. "A lot of nights that I went to these music things, I knew the paper wasn't going to use but one picture a week," Withers told New York Times writer Jon Pareles in 2002. "It was just amusement, and presence, and the historic collection of what was going on." In addition, Withers's photographs documented the fans that flocked to black clubs during the period, providing a valuable record of segregated Memphis culture. "That's an undiscovered jewel in the collection," said Tony Decaneas, agent and owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts in a 2007 interview with Michael Lollar in the Commercial Appeal. "It's a major exhibition waiting to happen."
His friendship with Nat D. Williams, a high school English teacher, journalist for the African-American weekly paper the Tri-State Defender, and a local disc jockey, helped Withers expand his business into photojournalism. Withers later credited Williams and journalist L. Alex Wilson with educating him about the emerging civil rights struggle, and with helping him to find opportunities and publishers for his photographs. Withers began publishing in the Tri-State Defender and soon expanded to other African-American publications, including the Chicago Defender, Cleveland Call & Post, New York Amsterdam News, Philadelphia Tribune, and the Pittsburgh Courier. Urged by Williams and Wilson, Withers began traveling the country and documenting issues of racial strife. After some of his photographs caught the attention of major newspapers, Withers began selling his photography to a larger audience, including such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and magazines including Time and Newsweek.
During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s Withers documented marches, demonstrations, and protests across the country. He photographed the historic desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 and thereafter followed Martin Luther King Jr. until King's death in 1968. Withers's photographs document King at the height of his influence, including famous photos such as King riding on one of the first desegregated buses in Alabama.
At a Glance …
Born August 7, 1922, in Memphis, TN; married Dorothy Curry, 1942; children: Joshua, Andrew, Perry, Rosalind. Military service: U.S. Army, 1945-48.
Career: Memphis Police Department, officer, 1948-51; freelance photographer, 1951-2007.
Memberships: Ernest C. Withers Historical Photography Foundation, founder.
Awards: National News Association, best photograph of the year award, 1968; Missouri Honor School Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, 2004.
Photographed Important Civil Rights Events
Withers documented the trial surrounding the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Sumner, Mississippi, in 1955, which was one of the events that helped to inspire nationwide protests and marches at the dawn of the civil rights era. He was the only black photographer to cover the Till trial from beginning to end, and after the acquittal of the white defendants he produced a small booklet documenting the proceedings, which was sold by the Progressive Union to raise awareness on racial issues. In 1959 Withers covered the grand jury investigation into the lynching of Mack Parker in Pearl County, Mississippi, where no indictments were issued and no one was prosecuted for the murder. There are few major events in the civil rights period that Withers did not personally photograph. In 1960 he documented the struggles of African-American families who were evicted for voting in national elections in Tennessee and set up tent communities outside the cities. He was also there to photograph the funeral and trial for the murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963.
The most famous of Withers's photographs from the civil rights period was a 1968 photo of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, depicting a large group of workers holding signs that read "I Am a Man." The photograph garnered Withers an award from the National News Association for Photograph of the Year. After the death of King, who was assassinated while in Memphis showing his support for the striking workers, Withers was one of few photographers invited into the funeral home to view King's body privately. Withers decided not to take pictures. "If I had made those pictures, I could have sold them to some of the special magazines," Withers told Pareles in 2002, "but it never dawned on me. I had the chivalry to respect him. I wasn't a hustler."
Though the bulk of Withers's work documents the civil rights era, he continued shooting photographs until his death in 2007, and amassed a list of more than a million frames. Thousands of his photographs that had been forgotten since the 1960s were uncovered in the 1990s and organized into exhibitions of his historic work. Also among Withers's works are pictures he took documenting the National Negro Baseball League before the integration of professional sports. He photographed many famous players from the Negro Leagues, including Josh Gibson, Willie Mays, and Satchel Paige. Withers's photographs were later included in exhibitions at the Baseball Hall of Fame and have been included in books on the Negro Leagues.
During the 1970s and 1980s, as racial integration took place in Memphis, Withers continued to document daily life. His photos retained a political quality and constitute a now invaluable record of the development of Memphis and the urban South. Having built a profitable business on his civil rights photography, Withers later sold photographs to all major news outlets, and he was asked to photograph a variety of situations, including several U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton.
Remembered as Leading Photographer
"Photography is an expendable craft," Withers told Pareles. "Though you shoot 30 or 24 pictures in a roll, you can never really count on selling more than 6 of them. The others, with some bit of wisdom, you stow away, and some day later in life they become worthy images." Speaking to Franklin, Withers said that although the events were highly emotional, he conducted himself as a professional and simply went where he was needed to record the events as they happened.
Withers and his wife had four children, three boys and a girl, and raised them in Memphis. Speaking to Lollar, son Joshua Withers said, "We were by no means rich, but we were comfortable, and he educated all of us." He added that his father was always a generous man who took pride in being able to help others. "He loved this city, and he loved people. That was his energy. He loved helping people. He used to help panhandlers on Beale Street. When he went to a restaurant, he would eat a little, then have them put the rest in a doggie box, then give it to the panhandlers. He had a great heart."
Withers's work was eventually collected in four books, Let Us March On!, Pictures Tell the Story, The Memphis Blues Again, and Negro League Baseball, and has been featured in many public exhibitions. Withers died of a stroke on October 15, 2007, while at his home in Memphis. Agent and friend Tony Decaneas said at the time that he planned to organize additional exhibitions to honor the life and work of Withers, of whom Decaneas said, "I think in my opinion he's the greatest African-American photographer of all time." Speaking of his own work, Withers took a humble view, believing that he simply served a historian's function to the best of his ability during an extraordinary point in history. Reflecting on his photographic philosophy, Withers told Lollar, "I look for things of time and value. None of my images deal in violence—they deal in time."
Let Us March On! Selected Civil Rights Photographs of Ernest C. Withers, 1955-1968, Massachusetts College of Art, 1992.
Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History, Chrysler Museum of Art, 2000.
The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs, Viking Studio, 2001.
Negro League Baseball, Henry N. Abrams Press, 2005.
Jet, March 7, 2005; November 5, 2007.
New York Times, November 9, 2001; March 19, 2002; October 17, 2007; December 30, 2007.
"A Biography of Ernest C. Withers," Chrysler Museum of Art Online,http://www.chrysler.org/withers/withers_bio.asp (accessed March 12, 2008).
Franklin, Robert A., "Interview with Ernest Withers—Photographer," Robert A. Franklin Journal Online,http://www.clt.astate.edu/rfranklin/ErnestWithers.htm (accessed March 12, 2008).
Lollar, Michael, "Ernest Withers Dies at 85," Commercial Appeal Online, October 16, 2007, http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2007/oct/16/ernest-withers-1922-2007-ernest-withers-dies/ (accessed March 12, 2008).
Meola, Eric, "The Life and Times of Ernest Withers," Digital Journalist Online, November 2007, http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0711/the-life-and-times-of-ernest-c-withers.html (accessed March 12, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt
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