ERNEST WITHERS

August 7, 1922 – October 15, 2007

 

Ernest Withers, (August 7, 1922 – October 15, 2007)

Ernest Withers, (August 7, 1922 – October 15, 2007)

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.


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TIMELINE

August 7, 1922 -  Born in Memphis, TN

1943-1946 -  Drafted in the 1319 Engineering Regiment in the army

1955 -  Withers had begun to establish a national reputation in the black press for his coverage of the Emmett Till murder/lynching

Oct. 15, 2007 -  Died in Memphis, TN


The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs

by DANIEL WOLFF

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.


ERNEST WITHERS, 85, CIVIL RIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHER

Obituaries

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.''


 

 

 

CIVIL RIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHER UNMASKED AS FBI INFORMER

By ROBBIE BROWN  / SEPT. 13, 2010

ATLANTA — That photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala.? He took it. The well-known image of black sanitation workers carrying “I Am a Man” signs in Memphis? His. He was the only photojournalist to document the entire trial in the murder of Emmett Till, and he was there in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, Dr. King’s room, on the night he was assassinated.

But now an unsettling asterisk must be added to the legacy of Ernest C. Withers, one of the most celebrated photographers of the civil rights era: He was a paid F.B.I. informer.

On Sunday, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis published the results of a two-year investigation that showed Mr. Withers, who died in 2007 at age 85, had collaborated closely with two F.B.I. agents in the 1960s to keep tabs on the civil rights movement. It was an astonishing revelation about a former police officer nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, whose previous claim to fame had been the trust he engendered among high-ranking civil rights leaders, including Dr. King.

Withers was often called the Original Civil Rights Photographer, for images like this 1961 shot of the Memphis Greyhound bus station. CreditErnest C. Withers courtesy Smithsonian Institution

“It is an amazing betrayal,” said Athan Theoharis, a historian at Marquette University who has written books about the F.B.I. “It really speaks to the degree that the F.B.I. was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

From at least 1968 to 1970, Mr. Withers, who was black, provided photographs, biographical information and scheduling details to two F.B.I. agents in the bureau’s Memphis domestic surveillance program, Howell Lowe and William H. Lawrence, according to numerous reports summarizing their meetings. The reports were obtained by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act and posted on its Web site.

A clerical error appears to have allowed for Mr. Withers’s identity to be divulged: In most cases in the reports, references to Mr. Withers and his informer number, ME 338-R, have been blacked out. But in several locations, the F.B.I. appears to have forgotten to hide them. The F.B.I. said Monday that it was not clear what had caused the lapse in privacy and was looking into the incident.

Civil rights leaders have responded to the revelation with a mixture of dismay, sadness and disbelief. “If this is true, then Ernie abused our friendship,” said the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a retired minister who organized civil rights rallies throughout the South in the 1960s.

Others were more forgiving. “It’s not surprising,” said Andrew Young, a civil rights organizer who later became mayor of Atlanta. “We knew that everything we did was bugged, although we didn’t suspect Withers individually.”

Many details of Mr. Withers’s relationship with the F.B.I. remain unknown. The bureau keeps files on all informers, but has declined repeated requests to release Mr. Withers’s, which would presumably explain how much he was paid by the F.B.I., how he was recruited and how long he served as an informer.

At the time of his death, 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 Panopticon Gallery in Boston, the exclusive agent for Mr. Withers. His photographs have been collected in four books, and his family was planning to open a museum, named after him.

His work shows remarkable intimacy with and access to top civil rights leaders. Friends used to say he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. But while he was growing close to top civil rights leaders, Mr. Withers was also meeting regularly with the F.B.I. agents, disclosing details about plans for marches and political beliefs of the leaders, even personal information like the leaders’ car tag numbers.

David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written biographies of Dr. King, said many civil rights workers gave confidential interviews to the F.B.I. and C.I.A., and were automatically classified as “informants.” The difference, Mr. Garrow said, is the evidence that Mr. Withers was being paid.

Although Mr. Withers’s motivation is not known, Mr. Garrow said informers were rarely motivated by the financial compensation, which “wasn’t enough money to live on.” But Marc Perrusquia, who wrote the article for The Commercial Appeal, noted that Mr. Withers had eight children and might have struggled to support them.

The children of Mr. Withers did not respond to requests for comment. But one daughter, Rosalind Withers, told local news organizations that she did not find the report conclusive.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this in my life,” Ms. Withers told The Commercial Appeal. “My father’s not here to defend himself. That is a very, very strong, strong accusation.”