Ernest C. Withers | b. 1922
The Eye on the Prize
By HANK KLIBANOFF
Published: December 30, 2007
Ernest C. Withers had not been a Memphis police officer very long when he saw the limits of his power. In 1948, he became one of the first nine black police officers hired by the city. They were allowed uniforms, patrol cars and guns, but they were barred from patrolling white neighborhoods or arresting white people. Their job was to keep the peace in black Memphis, particularly inside the thriving and jiving Club Ebony, Club Paradise, Club Handy, Currie’s Club Tropicana and other night spots. The gatekeepers of the white supremacist code wanted to confine, contain and keep the police officers where all black Southerners were expected to stay: in their place, isolated and invisible.
But Withers had a weapon more powerful than a gun. Off duty, Withers carried cameras everywhere he went. Denied access to the people and places where white photographers flourished, Withers documented instead the lives of the other invisible people around him — starting in those black night clubs.
From the late 1940s until his death this year, Withers shot more than a million frames. The richest troves of photos focused on three main areas: black middle-class life in Memphis and the South before, during and after the civil rights struggle; the brutal hand of white supremacy and the undaunted black response at pivotal moments in this era; and black baseball stars as they moved from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues.
Born in Memphis in 1922, a time when former slaves and their masters were still part of the landscape, Withers didn’t get serious about photography until he served in the Pacific during World War II. On Saipan, he set up a studio in the jungle that drew white soldiers willing to trade beer for a photo they could send home.
After the war, Withers returned to Memphis and took the police job. He didn’t stay long on the force, however, leaving after three years to devote himself to taking nightclub photos he then sold to performers and proprietors. In 1952, The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, opened The Tri-State Defender in Memphis. The timing could not have been better for Withers. With the emerging civil rights story, he received a steady flow of assignments from the newspaper and from Ebony and Jet magazines — and ventured deeper into the Southern heart of darkness.
Withers seemed to be everywhere during those years. It was Withers who captured the dramatic moment in 1955 when Mose Wright, the wizened uncle of Emmett Till, leaned forward in the witness’s chair in a Mississippi courtroom and bravely aimed an accusing finger at Till’s white killers. It was Withers who, in the dark of morning the next year, boarded the first Montgomery bus to operate after the landmark boycott led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended in victory. Withers covered the Central High confrontation in Little Rock in 1957 and the aftermath of the unfathomable lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Miss., in 1959. Nearly a decade later, in 1968, Withers documented the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, filling a frame with the workers as they stood shoulder to shoulder, holding signs that read, “I Am a Man.” Later that year, King’s life — and the arc of the civil rights movement — ended tragically in Memphis. Withers did not take the famous photo of King dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel; it was shot by a South African photographer. But Withers rescued it from overexposure and processed it in his darkroom.
When he wasn’t rolling across the South to capture the civil rights struggle, Withers was in Memphis, nearly alone in documenting the swinging, sophisticated, sometimes sultry music scene inside Memphis’s black clubs. Through Withers’s viewfinder we see B. B. King playing in Bermuda shorts around 1950; and a slender Aretha Franklin, wearing short shorts and holding hands with Sam Cooke, in front of the Lorraine Motel. Withers photographed Ike and Tina Turner performing at Club Paradise in 1962; 10 years later, Isaac Hayes is there, stripped to a bikini bottom. No black entertainer, it seems, came to Memphis and escaped Withers’s eye.
So powerful is the collection that the photo dealer Tony Decaneas, owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, was ashamed in 1991 when he first laid astonished eyes on the collection. He would see in subsequent visits to Memphis how popular the gregarious Withers had become across racial lines; he marveled that a building on Beale Street bore Withers’s name; he would become Withers’s fan, friend and purveyor. But he can still recall his reaction when he first saw Withers’s phenomenal work: “How come I’ve never heard of this guy?”
That, of course, was what the gatekeepers of the segregationist South had wanted. What they did not see was that every minute Withers spent confined, contained and kept where they wanted him only added depth, significance and value to a portfolio that no history of the nation can now ignore.