Friday, July 17, 2020

Artist of the day, July 17, 2020: Ernest C. Withers, an American photojournalist (#1044)

Ernest C. Withers (1922 – 2007) was an African-American photojournalist. He documented over 60 years of African American history in the segregated South, with iconic images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Emmett Till, Memphis sanitation strike, Negro league baseball, and musicians including those related to Memphis blues and Memphis soul. In 2010, it was revealed that Withers was a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigations'

Ernest Withers work has been archived by the Library of Congress and has been slated for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.

Ernest C. Withers was born in Memphis, Tennessee. During World War II he received training at the Army School of Photography. After the war, Withers served as one of Memphis' first African-American police officers.

Withers enjoyed traveling, visiting family members and entertaining guest at his home including Brock Peters, Jim Kelly, Eartha Kitt, Alex Haley, Ivan van Sertima, Stokley Carmichael, and many others in the entertainment world and black consciousness movement. He attended Gospel Temple Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was also an all-round (high-school to professional) sports enthusiast.

He traveled with Martin Luther King Jr. during his public life. Withers' coverage of the Emmett Till murder trial brought national attention to the racial violence taking place during the 1950s in Mississippi, among other places. Withers appeared in a TV documentary about the murdered 14-year-old entitled The American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till.

Withers served as official photographer for Stax Records for 20 years.

Between 1 million and 5 million images are estimated to have been taken during Withers' career, with current efforts in progress for preservation and digitization.

In 2013, the FBI released documents relating to Ernest Withers in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. The documents begin in 1946 with the FBI investigating Withers as a possible communist, as he was a member of the United Negro Allied Veterans of America (UNAVA) after serving in World War II, and the group was thought to have communist ties.

A 1968 document contains the first reference to an informant, ME 338-R, widely believed to be a reference to Withers and inferred by the FBI's responses to FOIA court actions. ME 338-R provided a variety of general information including pictures and brief descriptions of meetings and events. There is limited specific information, commonly relating to a militant group named the Invaders. ME 338-R recorded the violence and connections of the Invaders including a leaflet on the manufacturing of firebombs, and links to prostitution.

Ernest Withers died years before the FOIA request was made, thus no direct response was possible. However, at the 2000 Withers exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, Withers said he had FBI agents regularly looking over his shoulder and questioning him, "I never tried to learn any high powered secrets," Withers said. "It would have just been trouble.…[The FBI] was pampering me to catch whatever leaks I dropped, so I stayed out of meetings where decisions were being made."

Civil rights leader Andrew Young commented after the release of the FBI file, "The movement was transparent and didn't have anything to hide anyway".

The Ernest Withers Museum and Collection opened in Memphis, Tennessee on Beale Street in May 2011. The Museum features images of Ernest Withers spanning the eras of his work, while the complete archive is held in an offsite location.

© 2020. All content on this blog is protected by international copyright laws All images are copyrighted © by Ernest C. Withers or assignee. Apart from fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright Act, the use of any image from this site is prohibited unless prior written permission is obtained. All images used for illustrative purposes only

Mr. Ernest C. Withers

Ernest C. Withers in front of his delivery van, late 1940

Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. at the sanitation workers march in Memphis
 March 28, 1968

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy ride on one of the first desegregated buses,Montgomery, AL, December 21, 1956

First press conference of the March Against Fear, announcing Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr.,
Memphis, TN 1966

King resting in the Lorraine Street Motel
Memphis, 1966

 Martin Luther King, Jr. – Speech at the Mason Temple
April 3, 1968

 Mule train leaves for washington, poor people’s march
May 1968

 Memorial March after assassination of MLK
Main St, Memphis, April 8, 1968

Sumner, Mississippi
September 1955

 I Am a Man- Sanitation Workers Strike
Memphis, TN, 1968

 Memorial March after assassination of MLK
Main St, Memphis, April 8, 1968

Sanitation workers assemble in front of Clayborn Temple for a solidarity march
Memphis, March 28, 1968

The National Guard lines Beale St after the last march of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ends in a riot

NAACP Protest
Main Street, Memphis, early 1960s

Melba Botillio, one of the Little Rock Nine

Members of the Invaders, an offshoot of Black Power
accused by the FBI of agitating violence at the March 28 march

Waitresses and juke Box
Plantation Inn, West memphis, TN, 1950s

B B.B. King performing at night club
May 1970

Bobby "Blue" Bland, Club Handy
Memphis, TN, late 1950s

Elvis backstage, WDIA Goodwill Revue
Ellis Auditorium, December 7, 1956

Elvis with R&B singer Brook Benton
Memphis, 1967

Howlin' Wolf, Memphis grocery store

Ike and Tina

James Brown, Mod-South Coliseum
Memphis, 1975

Rhythm 'n' Blues Revue
midway at the Cottonmaker's Jubilee in the Beale Street Auditorium Park, early 1950's

Tina Turner, Ike and Tina Revue
Club Paradise, 1962

Twins at WDIA

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