Ernest Columbus Withers, Sr.
|Born||August 7, 1922|
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
|Died||October 15, 2007 (aged 85)|
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
|Notable work||Photographs of the segregated South in the 1940s–2000s, Negro league baseball, and the Memphis blues scene.|
Ernest C. Withers (August 7, 1922 – October 15, 2007) was an African-American photojournalist. He documented over 60 years of African-American history in the segregated Southern United States, with iconic images of the Montgomery bus boycott, Emmett Till, Memphis sanitation strike, Negro league baseball, and musicians including those related to Memphis blues and Memphis soul. In 2010, it was revealed that Withers was recruited and paid by the FBI's COINTELPRO program to inform on the US Civil rights movement for nearly two decades, beginning shortly after his first photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.
Withers's work has been archived by the Library of Congress and has been slated for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.
Ernest C. Withers was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Arthur Withers and Pearl Withers of Marshall County, Mississippi; he had a step-mother known as Mrs. Minnie Withers. Withers exhibited interest in photography from a young age. He took his first photograph in high school after his sister gave him a camera she received from a classmate. He met his wife Dorothy Curry of Brownsville, Tennessee (they remained married for 66 years), at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee.
Withers and his wife Dorothy had eight children together (seven boys and one girl, Rosalind Withers). He also had a second daughter from Memphis, Tennessee, named Frances Williams. All of his sons accompanied him as apprentice photographers at different points in his career, including Ernest, Jr., Perry O., Clarence (Joshua), E., Wendell J., Dedrick (Teddy) J., Dyral L., and Andrew (Rome). His business was called Withers Photography Studio.
Withers enjoyed traveling, visiting family members and entertaining guests at his home, including Brock Peters, Jim Kelly, Eartha Kitt, Alex Haley, Ivan van Sertima, Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and many others from the entertainment world and black consciousness movement. He attended Gospel Temple Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was also an all-round (high-school to professional) sports enthusiast.
Withers was active for approximately 60 years, with his most noted work being the images captured of the Civil Rights Movement.
He traveled with Martin Luther King Jr. during his public life. Withers's coverage of the Emmett Till murder trial brought national attention to the racial violence taking place during the 1950s in Mississippi, among other places. Withers appeared in a TV documentary about the murdered 14-year-old entitled The American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till.
Between 1 million and 5 million images are estimated to have been taken during Withers's career, with current efforts in progress for preservation and digitization.
FBI Document Release
In 2013, the FBI released documents relating to Withers in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. The documents begin in 1946 with the FBI investigating Withers as a possible communist, as he was a member of the United Negro Allied Veterans of America (UNAVA) after serving in World War II, and the group was thought to have communist ties.
A 1968 document contains the first reference to an informant, ME 338-R (Ghetto), widely believed to be a reference to Withers and inferred by the FBI's responses to FOIA court actions. ME 338-R(Ghetto) provided a variety of general information, including pictures and brief descriptions of meetings and events. There is limited specific information, commonly relating to a militant group named the Invaders. ME 338-R(Ghetto) recorded the violence and connections of the Invaders including a leaflet on the manufacturing of firebombs, and links to prostitution.
ME 338-R(Ghetto) was an informant for two years, 1968 through the final report in 1970, with 19 reports that include some reference to the informant. A total of 10 pictures were provided by the informant in the released documents.
Withers died years before the FOIA request was made, thus no direct response was possible. However, at the 2000 Withers exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, Withers said he had FBI agents regularly looking over his shoulder and questioning him. "I never tried to learn any high powered secrets," Withers said. "It would have just been trouble.…[The FBI] was pampering me to catch whatever leaks I dropped, so I stayed out of meetings where decisions were being made."
Ernest Withers Museum and Collection
The Ernest Withers Museum and Collection opened in Memphis, Tennessee, on Beale Street in May 2011. The Museum features images of Ernest Withers spanning the eras of his work, while the complete archive is held in an offsite location. The Withers Museum and Collection is approximately 7,000 square feet.
- Worley, William (1998). Beale Street: Crossroads of America's Music. Addax Pub Group Inc. ISBN 978-1-886110-18-2.
- Withers, Ernest (2000). Pictures Tell the Story : Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History. Chrysler Museum of Art. ISBN 978-0-940744-68-4.
- Withers, Ernest (2001). The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs. Studio. ISBN 978-0-670-03031-6.
- Withers, Ernest (2005). Negro League Baseball. Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 978-0-8109-5585-1.
- Withers, Ernest (2019). Ernest Withers and the FBI: The Confidential Informant Files, Volume One. Clear Lens Publishing. ISBN 978-1-7939-3124-5.
- Withers, Ernest (2020). Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393358-08-7.
- "Tennessee TripTales: a fine collection of stories crafted from across the state". Tnvacation.com. Archived from the original on February 5, 2016. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
- Noland, Claire (October 18, 2007). "Ernest C. Withers, 85; photographed civil rights era, blacks in baseball, Memphis music". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via LA Times.
- Brown, Robbie (September 13, 2010). "Civil Rights Photographer Unmasked as Informer". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 3, 2019.
- Perrusquia, Marc (2018). A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement. Melville House. pp. 232–241. ISBN 978-1-61219-341-0.
- "Documentary Exposes How The FBI Tried To Destroy MLK With Wiretaps, Blackmail". NPR.org. January 18, 2021. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
- "The Double Life of Civil Rights Photographer and FBI Informant Ernest Withers". The Intercept. January 28, 2019. Archived from the original on January 11, 2021. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
- "Ernest Withers". The Times. London. October 27, 2007.
- "Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85". The New York Times. October 17, 2007. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
- Peterson, Alison J. (October 17, 2007). "Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved October 17, 2007.
- Producer, By Carol Cratty, CNN Senior. "Newspaper lawsuit yields FBI records from civil rights-era informant - CNN.com". Cnn.com. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
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- Released by FBI under Freedom of Information lawsuit, June 2011 (August 3, 2011). "Withers a member of suspected Communist group, 1946". Archive.org. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via Internet Archive.
- National Archives and Records Administration (March 19, 2013). "Withers reports on MLK's March 18, 1968 visit". Archive.org. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via Internet Archive.
- "Internet Archive Search: subject:"46-grant-smith"". Archive.org. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
- National Archives and Records Administration (March 19, 2013). "Southern Christian Leadership Conference photos". Archive.org. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via Internet Archive.
- "Ernest Withers: A Second Look". Artnewengland.com. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
- Perrusquia, Marc. "Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement". Cdn.knoxblogs.com. Retrieved June 6, 2016.
- "Withers Collection Museum and Gallery" - Official Withers Collection Museum and Gallery Website
- Obituary in The Times, October 27, 2007
- "FBI, not Ernest Withers, was out to get MLK" - Op-ed by USA Today
- "Civil Rights Photographer Recast As FBI Informant" - slideshow by NPR
- Tri State Defender, September 2010 edition, front page.