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February 11, 2003 to May 4, 2003

Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers

Pictures Tell the Story”: Ernest C. Withers, which included 125 black-and-white photographs that capture the range of Withers’ interests as a participant-observer of black life in the South, primarily from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Working as a self-employed photographer in Memphis, Tennessee since 1950, Ernest Withers could be called the original photographer of the Civil Rights movement, the baseball players of the Diamond League, and the blues and jazz performers in his hometown of Memphis.

Famous photographs

Withers photographed most of the major Civil Rights events in the South.

Withers was the only photographer on the first desegregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  This event culminated the 1956 bus boycott led by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1957, Withers photographed the court-ordered school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, presided over by the National Guard.

In late March 1968, Withers helped to make the “I Am A Man” signs carried by striking Sanitation Workers in Memphis, Tennessee.  Some of his best-known photographs were captured at this event.

In early April 1968, Withers was on the scene of the assassination, aftermath, and funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

In addition to photographing the Civil Rights movement, Withers photographed portraits of baseball icons such as Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, as well as up-and-coming blues and jazz performers such as B. B. King, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin.

Withers also photographed other aspects of black life and people who never became famous.  Since 1950, he has been a self-employed photographer and for many years earned a living by making house calls to photograph portraits of black families.  His Withers has called his trade “the black side of life” (or what at the time was called “segregated Negro Memphis”), the invisible part of American society in the 1950s and 1960s that the mainstream press did not cover.

“Pictures Tell the Story” has been organized by The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA and the PAA’s presentation has been underwritten in part by The Met Life Foundation, Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, and The LINKS, Inc. Penn Towne Chapter, with in-kind support from the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, Synterra Partners, NBC-10 TV, and WYBE TV.

Professional Background:

Until recently, Ernest Withers’ photographs were better known than he was. During the 1950 and 1960s, his photographs circulated among African-American newspapers and publications nationally. He often put himself at great personal risk by photographing Civil Rights protests and marches. To earn money to support his family, Withers sold undeveloped rolls of film to white photographers who did not get as close to incidents of civil unrest as Withers did.  He was not credited as the photographer when these images were in turn sold to the mainstream media. Consequently, many images in circulation have not been properly credited as by Ernest Withers until recently, since 1992, when he started to exhibit his photographs in museums.

Special Events:

As part of its Great Writers Series, the PAA hosted a lecture and discussion on African American fiction writer James Baldwin at the PAA on Tuesday, February 18 at 7 p.m.  Prof. Roland Williams of Temple University spoke on “James Baldwin: The Conundrum of Color.”  Admission is $5 (general public) and is free for PAA Members.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a one-day symposium was held on  Friday, April 11, 2004 to be held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.  The Keynote Speaker was Phoebe Haddon, professor of law, Temple University.



Tags: photography