Ernest Withers obit in "Boston Globe"
Mon Oct 22 11:05:59 EDT 2007
Interesting that the Boston paper picked up a "Los Angeles Times" piece:
Ernest Withers; documented black history
By Claire Noland, Los Angeles Times | October 22, 2007
LOS ANGELES - Ernest C. Withers, a photographer who documented more than 60
years of black history by capturing images from the civil rights movement,
Negro Leagues baseball, and blues and R&B performances on Beale Street in his
native Memphis, has died. He was 85.
Mr. Withers died Oct. 15 at Memphis VA Medical Center from complications of a
stroke he suffered in September, his son Andrew said.
Trained as a photographer by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II,
Mr. Withers returned to Memphis and opened a commercial studio. He also
worked as a freelance photojournalist for such local black newspapers as the
Tri-State Defender and the now-defunct Memphis World.
In 1955, Mr. Withers traveled to Sumner, Miss., to cover the trial of two
white men accused in the slaying of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago
who allegedly had whistled at the wife of one of the defendants. An all-white
jury acquitted the pair, who later admitted their guilt. Many blacks, including
Mr. Withers, were outraged by the verdict, and he self-published a booklet
with photographs from the trial.
The pamphlet, which he sold for $1 each, brought Mr. Withers to the attention
of the national black media. He started getting assignments from the Chicago
Defender, The Baltimore Afro-American, Jet and Ebony magazines, as well as
mainstream outlets such as Time, Life, The New York Times, and the Washington P
"Ernest was doing conventional studio work," said his agent, Tony Decaneas,
owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, "but he loved history and he was aware
of this social revolution that was taking place."
Over the next several years Mr. Withers became a witness to key moments in
the civil rights movement in the South. He captured the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr. and his colleague, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, riding a bus in Montgomery,
Ala., on the first day the transit system was desegregated, in December 1956.
Mr. Withers chronicled the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas
in 1957 and the enrollment of James Meredith as the first black student at
the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Mr. Withers's photos provided records of the funerals of NAACP organizer
Medgar Evers, who was killed after working to register voters in 1963, and King,
who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has in its permanent collection more than
100 of Mr. Withers's black-and-white images.
"There is a level of immediacy in those photos that's extraordinary," said
Marina Pacini, the museum's chief curator.
Calling the images "powerful and potent," Pacini noted that Mr. Withers "was
part of the community, which meant that he had an entrée to it and could get a
much more intimate point of view."
Mr. Withers had the largest catalog of any individual photographer covering
the civil rights movement in the South, said Decaneas.
"Not only did he document civil rights history," Decaneas said, "he was the
epitome of a fine-art working journalist."
Mr. Withers had a sizable following in the Boston area, Decaneas told The
In an interview with the Globe in 2001, Mr. Withers said, "I was just
recording what I see. I was not really an activist. I was a news photographer."
Ernest Columbus Withers was born Aug. 7, 1922, to a Memphis postal worker and
his wife. A teenage Withers made his first photograph with a Brownie camera
he borrowed at a school event where the wife of boxer Joe Louis was speaking.
After his return from military service, Mr. Withers became one of nine black
men to join the Memphis Police Department in 1948. He patrolled black
neighborhoods and got to know judges, police officers, and other law enforcement
He soon turned to photography full time and took all manner of jobs to make
ends meet, shooting weddings, graduations, church socials, and civic meetings.
He toted his camera to Martin Stadium, where the Memphis Red Sox played in
the Negro American League. Withers provided publicity shots for the team and
photographed many of the greatest black baseball players who competed against one
another before the major leagues were integrated. His pictures of Satchel
Paige, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, a teenage Willie Mays, and many
others appeared in a 2005 book of his photos called "Negro League Baseball."
Mr. Withers also spent a lot of time on Beale Street, the center of the
Memphis music scene, photographing B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Aretha
Franklin, and countless other singers, both in studio portraits and in club
shots. Many of these images were collected in book form in "Pictures Tell the
Story" (2000) and "The Memphis Blues Again" (2001).
In addition to his son Andrew of Memphis, he leaves his wife of 65 years,
Dorothy; sons Perry of Memphis and Joshua of Los Angeles; and a daughter,
Rosalind of West Palm Beach, FL.
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