Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Photojournalist Ernest C. Withers: Civil Rights Movement on Film

The New York Daily News, "Ernest C. Withers spent life putting black plight in focus," 17 October 2007 reported:

Ernest C. Withers spent more than 60 years telling America's story with the lens of his camera, which leaves one consolation from his death Monday night: We still have the story.

Specifically, one of modern America's great artists left a story few other cameras recorded. He photographed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Memphis balcony where King was killed. He shot the jury that freed the white men who killed Emmett Till, a black teenager who whistled at a white woman.

Withers, who was 85 when he died, didn't start out as a historian. On Saipan during World War II, he took snapshots for Marines to send home to their families.

After the war, like the famous Harlem team of Morgan and Marvin Smith, Withers opened a studio, making rent and grocery money from weddings and community events. He followed the people, which is how he came to create an incalculably valuable record of the twilight years in the Negro baseball leagues.

While shooting concerts produced by WDIA, America's first black-programmed radio station, he caught former WDIA deejay B.B. King chatting with a young white kid named Elvis Presley.

He knew some of this was history, he later said, but more important at the time, it was news, for which he could get paid. His photos ran in black papers like the Amsterdam News for years before mainstream outfits like The New York Times discovered him.

"None of these [black] newspapers received wire service of events that involved black people," he said. "In areas of racial trouble ... I was summoned to go and take pictures of the evidence or imagery that would make for newspaper pictures."

The pictures he took of Emmett Till's mutilated face, and his mother's reaction, were one of the forces that eventually made it impossible for America to ignore the evil side of its racial divide.

In some ways, military photographer Ernest C. Withers shot a bigger war after he came home.

But while Withers was admired by his peers for shooting first and asking questions later, he also said he understood the power of what he was doing. He declined an invitation to take pictures of Dr. King's body in the morgue, fearing how they might be used as years went by.

Wherever he drew the lines, he took the pictures that counted. From James Brown on his knees to striking sanitation workers on their feet, Ernest Withers left a record of how his people, and his country, got from there to here. (http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/arts/2007/10/17/2007-10-17_ernest_c_withers_spent_life_putting_blac.html)

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Ernest C. Withers talks about his photojournalism career, which took him on travels with Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and other figures in the civil rights movement. As a freelance journalist for African American newspapers, he captured on film the momentous events of the 1950s and 60s as they unfolded. Withers shares his experiences and images of events that altered the course of American history in a memorable Martin Luther King Jr. Day presentation.



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