Treasures from the Vault: Ernest Withers

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Professors from universities around the area bring their students to the Print and Drawing Study Center at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art to see works on paper from the permanent collection that are currently in storage.  One of the most frequent requests is for the I Am a Man portfolio by African American photographer Ernest C. Withers (1922-2007).  He is best known for his works documenting the Civil Rights Movement.   

When Withers was in eighth grade, he began taking photos with his sister’s Brownie camera.  He honed his skills in the darkroom at the Army School of Photography at Camp Sutton, North Carolina. Although the Army did not need his services as a photographer in the end, Withers made extra cash taking photos of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the South Pacific.

After returning home to Memphis, Tennessee, Withers and his brother used the GI Bill to open a photography studio.  Tennessee has figured largely in black history and Withers’ photographs captured community life from civic and social events in Memphis: his pictures of a black-owned nightclub appeared in black newspapers, Stax Records used him as their official photographer, and he sold photos at the Memphis Red Sox games.  Looking back, Withers photographs chronicled both the Blues scene on Beale Street and the late years of the Negro Baseball League.

Withers was frequently the first or only photographer to cover significant events in American history as they unfolded.  He received national attention for his photographs recording the trial of the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.  The first day the buses were desegregated in Montgomery, Alabama, Withers was there.  He had the ability to communicate the intensity and emotion during these moments.  Withers caught the uneasy instant before the “Little Rock Nine” students, escorted by the National Guard and in front of a crowd of white students, desegregated Central High School following the Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision.

The Little Rock Nine exit the car on the street parked outside their school. In front of the school is group of people protesting with signs. A tree in front bisects the group, and we can see one student spilling her books and papers as a policeman helps another out of the car.
The “Little Rock Nine” prepare to enter Little Rock Central High School following the decision of the Supreme Court to desegregate schools. Ernest C. Withers, American, 1922-2007. The Little Rock Nines’ First Day of School, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957, from the I Am A Man portfolio. Silver gelatin print, 1957. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2003.11.15. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In one of his most iconic photographs, Withers captured the distressed expression of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he was confronted by the police.  We feel pressed up against the heads and shoulders of the men in front of us, which frame and focus our attention on Dr. King while contributing to a feeling of oppression and confinement.  Withers often traveled with and photographed civil rights leaders and pioneers, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and James Meredith.  The level of comfort and familiarity he shared with his subjects enabled him to gain more intimate access and, consequently, better shots.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s face is framed by the shoulder of a male FBI agent as he walks through the crowd.
Ernest C. Withers, American, 1922-2007. Dr. Martin Luther King is Confronted: Dr. King is stopped by police at Medgar Evers’ funeral. Jackson, Mississippi, June, 1963, from the I Am A Man portfolio. Silver gelatin print, 1963. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2003.11.6. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Withers also photographed the efforts of individuals, whose names were not recorded in history, but whose everyday actions and struggles were no less important.  Eviction from their homes was the consequence many African Americans faced when they tried to vote back in 1960 in Fayette County, TN, as seen in Tent City Family.   Instead of despair, Withers reveals conviction on their faces.  

A Black family, father, mother, and five children, stand in front of a tent outside after being evicted from their house.
Ernest C. Withers, American, 1922-2007. Tent City Family: This family was evicted from their home for exercising their right to vote. Somerville, Fayette County, Tennessee, 1960, from the I Am A Man portfolio. Silver gelatin print, 1960. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2003.11.4. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Unlike some of the northern and/or white photojournalists covering the South, Withers was a participant in the Movement instead of just an observer. When there were marches, he was there making signs and was even beaten on several occasions for covering the event.

Withers saw his work as a contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, believing that if the struggle for equality could be shown then people would advocate for equality and social change.  The title of the portfolio, I Am a Man, is poignant.  It doesn’t seem like much to ask for rights that are so essential and basic—simply asking to be treated like a human being.

It wasn’t uncommon for Withers to give his undeveloped roll of film to a journalist for extra money.  Therefore, one can only wonder what other photographs were taken by the artist that are unattributed.  Today, his works can be found in major museums across the country, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

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