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's 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. 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.
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.
"Here's Martin Luther King lying on a bed. There's Elvis and B.B. King, two music giants of Memphis. Here's Jackie Robinson, the baseball pioneer. And there, hauntingly, is the horribly disfigured face of lynching victim Emmett Till.
The late photographer Ernest Withers was there for all of it, chronicling the history -- a specific slice of American history -- of blacks in the South between the late 1940s and the 1970s."
© Dr.Ernest C. Withers, Sr.
All Ernest C. Withers photographs
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©Dr.Ernest C. Withers, Sr.