Ernest Withers

Ernest Withers


Photojournalist Ernest C. Withers was born on August 7, 1922, in Memphis, Tennessee. Withers got his start as a military photographer while serving in the South Pacific during World War II. Upon returning to a segregated Memphis after the war, Withers chose photography as his profession. In the 1950s, Withers helped spur the movement for equal rights with a self-published photo pamphlet on the Emmitt Till murder. Over the next two decades, Withers formed close personal relationships with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and James Meredith. Withers’ pictures of key civil rights events from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the strike of Memphis sanitation workers are historic. Indeed, Withers was often the only photographer to record these scenes, many of which were not yet of interest to the mainstream press.

Withers photographed more than the southern Civil Rights Movement. Whether Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and other Negro League Baseball players, or those jazz and blues musicians who frequented Memphis’ Beale Street, Withers photographed the famous and not-so famous. Withers’ collection includes pictures of early performances of Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin.

In his more than sixty-year career, Withers accumulated a collection of an estimated five million photographs; his works appeared in The New York Times, Jet, Ebony, Newsweek, and Life and were featured in touring exhibits and shows around the Country. For his life’s work, Withers was elected to the Black Press Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Art. Withers and his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Curry, raised eight children. Ernest C. Withers passed away on Monday, October 15, 2007 at the age of eighty-five.


MEMPHIS: In Black and White

By Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman

The cotton market bottomed out in 1933. Selling at 5 cents per pound, the distribution market was clogged with a three-year supply of unsold cotton. Cotton factors ad merchants, desperate to find ways to revive their fortunes came up with a celebration called the Cotton Carnival. Patterned after the Memphis Mardi Gras, celebrated from 1872 to 1892, and omitting the religion, the First Cotton Carnical was held in March 1931. During “Cotton Week” all stores and theaters displayed cotton and cotton products in their lobbies and store windows and sponsored newspaper ads and radio programs to tout Memphis’ most important product. On the final day, as music played and fireworks streaked in the sky, the royal barge glided along the river carrying the King, Queen, and Royal Court, composed of young women mostly in their first year of college. The Queen was another young woman “at least a couple years older,” and the King a prominent business leader. Cotton Carnival royalty, marching bands, flower bedecked automobiles filled with dignitaries, and 86 floats constructed by students from Tech High gathered at Ellis Aditorium, then swept down Main Street through the business district, crossed over to Second and returned to Ellis. The theme was “The Old South,” featuring Southern belles and gallant Southern gentlemen. Black women, dressed as mammies, perched on bales of cotton aboard the floats or greeted passers-by on street corners. Teams of black men, along with horses and mules, pulled the floats through the streets as thousands of eager spectators packed shoulder-to-shoulder to cheer them on. While it is not clear that the carnival had much impact on the cotton marked, it did become a major social event in the city. Secret societies composed of Memphis’ elite planned ever more elaborate celevrations each year. 

African Americans, denied participation in the festivities except as beasts of burden, responded five years later with a celebration of their own role in Memphis’ cotton prosperity. Begun in 1936 by Beale Street dentist Dr. R.Q. Venson, the Beale Street Cotton Maker’s Fiesta soon came to be known as the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee. The week-long celebration featured the Jubilect (a talent show and election of royalty) a beauty contest to choose the Bronze Maid of Cotton and Miss Sepia Venus of the Mid-South, a Red Sox baseball game, and three parades: a children’s parade, coronation parade, and the Grand Jubilee Parade. The parades began at the foot of Beale Street at Riverside Drive and ended in Handy Park. The Cotton Makers’ Jubilee focused on African themes with floats depicting ancient Egypt and ancient West African civilizations; the royalty dressed as Pharaohs and consorts, accompanied by girls in grass skirts and painted warriors. Beale Street’s chief export, music, also figured prominently in the Jubilee. W.C. Handy served as its first grand marshal and the Booker T. Washington High School Drum and Bugle Corps in their green and gold uniforms always dazzled the crowd.

From its inception, the Jubilee had support from the white community, who welcomed the black community’s separate celebration of cotton. Cotton Carnival organizers served on the advisory board of the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee and white royalty appeared on the platform with black royalty, but the reberse was not done. I the 1960s, the NAACP and student activists picketed the Jubilee for its inappropriate celebration of cotton and by implication slavery. Yet it continued to thrive.

In 1981, after the Cotton Carnival had replaced their secret societies with krewes (organizations patterned after New Orleans’ Mardi Gras to manage and stage the Carnival festivities), they invited the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee to become a krewe and a full partner in the Carnival. For the first time, African-American royalty were presented to the Crown and Sceptre Ball. Although the barges and parades were gone, the societies continue the tradition of choosing royalty for what is now called Carnival Memphis and hold a series of social functions capped by the Grand Carnival Ball every June. The Jubilee retains its appeal in the black community and in 1999, the anme was officially changed to the Memphis Kemet Jubilee. Kemet, an Egyptian word meaning black, was determined to be “a more befitting, descriptive, and historically significant name.” The Kemet Jubilee currently extends for ten days in May.

KING COTTON IN MODERN AMERICA: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History Since 1945

By: D. Clayton Brown

For all its admirable features, the Cotton Carnival was originally segregated. In 1936 a prominent African American dentist, R.Q. Venson, took his nephew to watch the parade. The young boy did not enjoy the parade because, as Venson’s wife recalled, he said that “all the Negroes were horses.” The boy’s remark referred to the employment of black men wearing long white coats to pull the floats. This practice had disapeared by 1946, when motorized floats were used, but the image of blacks pulling carts like horses resonated through the black community. In 1936 Venson wanted to bring African Americans into the carnival, but he was rebuked. This refusal motivated him and several black leaders, including the powerful Robert B. Church, to organize the Cotton Makers Jubilee, which resembled the white festival but held its parades on Beale Street. W.C. Handy served as the first grand marshal in 1936. In the post-1945 era, the jubilee also grew and offered new attractions. Aroyal cortege with a king and queen reigned over the festivities each year. Onlookers could enjoy several parades. Teas, fashion shows, and a grand ball were part of the jubilee. It also kept the theme of cotton. In 1956 it sponsored an essay contest for black schoolchildren based on the theme “King Cotton in the Atomic Age.” No outbreaks of violence or fisticuffs occurred between blacks and whites; the Jubilee had the support of the white establishment, though it remained separate from the carnival. When Martin Luther King Jr. died by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, the Cotton Carnival suspended its celebration for the year.

Criticism of the jubilee came from some blacks who argued that cotton had brought misery to African Americans. Critics wanted no homage paid to the crop that put blacks in slavery and then sharecropping. Defenders replied that the jubilee was an opportunity to show the black contribution to the South, to keep alive the history of black labor in the cotton kingdom. No other means was available, they continued, to make this point. Whatever the disagreements, the Cotton Makers Jubilee thrived, and in 1981 the two organizations began to integrate when the Cotton Carnival invited the jubilee to furnish one of the grand krewes for the white organization. In 1984 the king and queen of both groups formally reviewed the parades. Cooperation and cross-participation have since prevailed, but each organization has retained its own identity. In 1999 the Cotton Makers Jubilee adopted a new name, the Memphis Kemet Jubilee, as a tribute to black Egyptian culture. Its new krewes had names like pharaoh and Nile. In 2004 the Kemet hosted golf tournaments, barbeques, and balls. 

The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs


Memphis, the legendary birthplace of the blues, has throbbed with the sounds of some of the greatest American popular music in the twentieth century: from ragtime and jazz, through the blues, r&b, and rock and roll, to gospel, soul, and funk. And for over fifty years Ernest Withers has documented the Memphis music scene in and around Beale Street. So many of the great musicians and performers are included: W. C. Handy, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and many more. And Withers photographed them in situ: in the dancehalls, recording studios, auditoriums, churches, and streets of Memphis. These photographs are a fundamental visual archive of the musical legacy of Memphis—and one powerful aspect of the photographic legacy of Ernest Withers.

The photographs are reproduced in stunning duotone plates and were selected by award-winning author Daniel Wolff who also wrote the introduction and the extended captions. See Ray Charles playing piano at the WDIA Goodwill Revue, Elvis Presley bumping and grinding at the Club Paradise in 1960, Aretha Franklin and Coretta Scott King at the SCLC Convention in 1968, and Count Basie jamming with Billy Eckstine at the Hippodrome in 1953, and many more. No serious fan of blues, rock and roll, or soul can afford to be without this handsome photographic portrait of a whole world of American music.



By ALISON J. PETERSON / October 17, 2007

Ernest C. Withers, a photographer whose voluminous catalog of arresting black-and-white images illustrates a history of life in the segregated South in the 1950s and '60s, from the civil rights movement to the Beale Street music scene, died on Monday in Memphis. He was 85. 

The cause was complications of a stroke, said his son Joshua, of Los Angeles. 

Mr. Withers worked as a freelance photographer at a time when events of the day were not just newsworthy but historic occasions. He photographed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resting at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after the March Against Fear in 1966, and riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956, along with the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. 

He photographed a mass of men all holding placards reading ''I Am a Man'' at the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, the last march led by Dr. King before his assassination in April 1968. He also covered Dr. King's funeral. 

Mr. Withers was the only photographer who covered the entire trial of those charged with killing Emmett Till, a black teenager who was said to have whistled at a white woman. He also photographed the funeral of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was killed in 1963, and the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. 

Mr. Withers had the largest catalog of any individual photographer covering the civil rights movement in the South, said Tony Decaneas, the owner of the Panopitcon Gallery in Boston. The galley is the exclusive agent for Mr. Withers. 

''Not only did he document civil rights history,'' Mr. Decaneas said, ''he was the epitome of a fine-art working journalist.'' 

Mr. Withers documented Memphis's bustling Beale Street blues scene, making both studio portraits of up-and-coming musicians and going inside the clubs for shots of live shows and their audiences. He photographed B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Al Green, among others. In 1956 he photographed a young Mr. Presley arm in arm with Dr. King at a Memphis club. 

Ernest C. Withers was born on Aug. 7, 1922, in Memphis. He worked as a photographer in the Army in World War II and started a studio when he returned. 

He also worked for about three years as one of the first nine African-American police officers in Memphis. 

Besides his son Joshua, also known as Billy, Mr. Withers is survived by his wife, Dorothy; two other sons, Andrew Jerome and Perry, both of Memphis; a daughter, Rosalind, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; 15 grandchildren; and 8 great-grandchildren. 

Besides documenting music and civil rights, Mr. Withers also turned his lens on the last great years of Negro League baseball. His work appeared in publications like Time, Newsweek and The New York Times and has been collected in four books: ''Let Us March On,'' ''Pictures Tell the Story,'' ''The Memphis Blues Again'' and ''Negro League Baseball.'' 

In a 2002 interview in The Times, he said: ''I was trained as a high school student in history. But I didn't know that I would be recording the high multitude of imagery and history that I did record.''