Ernest C. Withers, a photographer who documented more than 60 years of African American history by capturing visual images from the civil rights movement, Negro Leagues baseball and blues and R&B; performances on Beale Street in his native Memphis, Tenn., has died. He was 85.
Withers died Monday at the Memphis VA Medical Center from complications of a stroke he suffered last month, his son Andrew Withers said Tuesday.
Trained as a photographer during World War II by the Army Corps of Engineers, Withers returned to Memphis and opened a commercial studio. He also worked as a freelance photojournalist for black newspapers, including the Tri-State Defender and the now-defunct Memphis World.
In 1955, Withers traveled to Sumner, Miss., to cover the trial of two white men accused of the grisly murder of Emmett Till, an African American teenager from Chicago who had allegedly whistled at the wife of one of the defendants.
An all-white jury acquitted the pair, who later admitted their guilt. Many blacks, including Withers, were outraged by the verdict, and he self-published a booklet with photographs from the trial.
The pamphlets, which he sold for $1 each, brought Withers to the attention of the national black press. He started getting assignments from the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, Jet and Ebony, as well as such mainstream outlets as Time, Life, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
“Ernest was doing conventional studio work,” his agent, Tony Decaneas of the Panopticon Gallery in Boston, told The Times, “but he loved history and he was aware of this social revolution that was taking place.”
Over the next several years Withers became an up-close witness to key moments in the civil rights movement in the South. He captured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleague Ralph Abernathy riding a bus in Montgomery, Ala., on the first day the transit system was desegregated in December 1956.
Withers went on to chronicle the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 and the enrollment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Withers’ 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 Withers’ black-and-white images.
“There is a level of immediacy in those photos that’s extraordinary,” Marina Pacini, the museum’s chief curator, told The Times.
Calling the images “powerful and potent,” Pacini noted that Withers “was part of the community, which meant that he had an entree to it and could get a much more intimate point of view.”
Ernest Columbus Withers was born Aug. 7, 1922, to a Memphis postal worker and his wife. The teenage Withers made his first photograph with a Brownie camera he borrowed from his sister at a school event where the wife of prizefighter Joe Louis was speaking.
Returning from military service, 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 figures.
He soon turned to photography full time and took all manner of jobs to make ends meet, shooting weddings and 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.”
Withers also spent a lot of time on Beale Street, the center of Memphis’ music scene, photographing B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Aretha Franklin and countless other singers and musicians at the packed, smoky nightclubs.
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, survivors include his wife of 65 years, Dorothy; sons Perry of Memphis and Joshua of Los Angeles, and a daughter, Rosalind, of West Palm Beach, Fla.
A funeral will be held Saturday in Memphis, with a memorial walk down Beale Street to follow, ending at W.C. Handy Park. Instead of flowers, his family requests donations to preserve and restore his photos, to be sent to the Ernest C. Withers Sr. Historical Photographic Foundation, P.O. Box 152, Memphis, TN, 38101.