[JPL] Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85

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Wed Oct 17 14:22:50 EDT 2007


October 17, 2007
Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85

Ernest C. Withers, a photographer whose voluminous catalog of arresting
black-and-white images illustrates a history of life in the segregated South
in the 1950s and ¹60s, from the civil rights movement to the Beale Street
music scene, died on Monday in Memphis. He was 85.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said his son Joshua, of Los

Mr. Withers worked as a freelance photographer at a time when events of the
day were not just newsworthy but historic occasions. He photographed the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resting at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis
after the March Against Fear in 1966, and riding one of the first
desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956, along with the Rev. Ralph
David Abernathy.

He photographed a mass of men all holding placards reading ³I Am a Man² at
the Memphis sanitation workers¹ strike, the last march led by Dr. King
before his assassination in April 1968. He also covered Dr. King¹s funeral.

Mr. Withers was the only photographer who covered the entire trial of those
charged with killing Emmett Till, a black teenager who was said to have
whistled at a white woman. He also photographed the funeral of Medgar Evers,
the civil rights activist who was killed in 1963, and the nine black
students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

Mr. Withers had the largest catalog of any individual photographer covering
the civil rights movement in the South, said Tony Decaneas, the owner of the
Panopitcon Gallery in Boston. The galley is the exclusive agent for Mr.

³Not only did he document civil rights history,² Mr. Decaneas said, ³he was
the epitome of a fine-art working journalist.²

Mr. Withers documented Memphis¹s 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 B. B. King at a Memphis

Ernest C. Withers was born on Aug. 7, 1922, in Memphis. He worked as a
photographer in the Army in World War II and started a studio when he

He also worked for about three years as one of the first nine
African-American police officers in Memphis.

Besides his son Joshua, also known as Billy, Mr. Withers is survived by his
wife, Dorothy; two other sons, Andrew Jerome and Perry, both of Memphis; a
daughter, Rosalind, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; 15 grandchildren; and 8

Besides documenting music and civil rights, Mr. Withers also turned his lens
on the last great years of Negro League baseball. His work appeared in
publications like Time, Newsweek and The New York Times and has been
collected in four books: ³Let Us March On,² ³Pictures Tell the Story,² ³The
Memphis Blues Again² and ³Negro League Baseball.²

In a 2002 interview in The Times, he said: ³I was trained as a high school
student in history. But I didn¹t know that I would be recording the high
multitude of imagery and history that I did record.²

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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