Memphis, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – He was the Snapchat and Instagram of our time. The iPhone and Android camera rolled into one. Ernest C. Withers ‘shook it like a Polaroid,’ literally documenting more than 60 years of African-American history in the segregated south in color and in black and white. He snapped 1.8-million photographs. As Local 24 News Weeknight Anchor Katina Rankin tells us, his ability to capture history is local good news.
“The google of his time, and that’s true,” said Ernest Withers’ Daughter Rosalind Withers.
He hung around the rich and famous, musicians and actors. But he was never in the spotlight. He stood in the background, camera in hand, taking photographs and documenting history.
“Trailblazer! He’s the one that actually helped us connect to our past,” said Withers.
I’m talking about Memphian Ernest C. Withers. Just take a look at some of his work. He captured the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Memphis Sanitation Strike, Negro League Baseball – even musician B.B. King in shorts.
“He happened to be at the right place at the right time to be able to capture what’s important for us to remember, so we don’t repeat the past,” said Withers.
He was the man behind Emmett Till’s open casket photo going across the world, an action that formed a relationship between Withers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“That’s really what merged his relationship with Martin – because of the Emmett Till trial. That photograph of the brutally beaten face of Emmett Till went through the wire,” said Withers. “So, he covered important things that Martin wanted to make visible to the world because dad knew how to get it through the wire service.”
Besides taking pictures of protests and Hollywood stars in the Bluff City, Withers also snapped shots of everyday people like you and me. Candid shots that caught us smiling, laughing, even posing.
“He took the time to learn the craft and to build from that craft, to share what we must not forget,” said Withers. “On all of his cards, he printed, “pictures tell the story”.
And, his storytelling began when he snapped his first photograph in high school and began “his-story,” marrying his wife of 66 years and starting a family – a family that now showcases his work in a small gallery located at the end of Beale Street.