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Ernest Withers, 85, Civil Rights Photographer

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ernest C. Withers, a photographer whose voluminous catalog of arresting black-and-white images illustrates a history of life in the segregated South in the 1950s and '60s, from the civil rights movement to the Beale Street music scene, died on Monday in Memphis. He was 85.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said his son Joshua, of Los Angeles.

Mr. Withers worked as a freelance photographer at a time when events of the day were not just newsworthy but historic occasions. He photographed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resting at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after the March Against Fear in 1966, and riding one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956, along with the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.

He photographed a mass of men all holding placards reading ''I Am a Man'' at the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, the last march led by Dr. King before his assassination in April 1968. He also covered Dr. King's funeral.

Mr. Withers was the only photographer who covered the entire trial of those charged with killing Emmett Till, a black teenager who was said to have whistled at a white woman. He also photographed the funeral of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was killed in 1963, and the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

Mr. Withers had the largest catalog of any individual photographer covering the civil rights movement in the South, said Tony Decaneas, the owner of the Panopitcon Gallery in Boston. The galley is the exclusive agent for Mr. Withers.

''Not only did he document civil rights history,'' Mr. Decaneas said, ''he was the epitome of a fine-art working journalist.''

Mr. Withers documented Memphis's bustling Beale Street blues scene, making both studio portraits of up-and-coming musicians and going inside the clubs for shots of live shows and their audiences. He photographed B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Al Green, among others. In 1956 he photographed a young Mr. Presley arm in arm with Dr. King at a Memphis club.

Ernest C. Withers was born on Aug. 7, 1922, in Memphis. He worked as a photographer in the Army in World War II and started a studio when he returned.

He also worked for about three years as one of the first nine African-American police officers in Memphis.

Besides his son Joshua, also known as Billy, Mr. Withers is survived by his wife, Dorothy; two other sons, Andrew Jerome and Perry, both of Memphis; a daughter, Rosalind, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; 15 grandchildren; and 8 great-grandchildren.

Besides documenting music and civil rights, Mr. Withers also turned his lens on the last great years of Negro League baseball. His work appeared in publications like Time, Newsweek and The New York Times and has been collected in four books: ''Let Us March On,'' ''Pictures Tell the Story,'' ''The Memphis Blues Again'' and ''Negro League Baseball.''

In a 2002 interview in The Times, he said: ''I was trained as a high school student in history. But I didn't know that I would be recording the high multitude of imagery and history that I did record.''

Correction: October 18, 2007, Thursday Because of an editing error, an obituary yesterday about the photographer Ernest C. Withers, who documented life in the segregated South in the 1950s and '60s, from the civil rights movement to the Memphis blues scene, misidentified the person he photographed arm in arm with Elvis Presley at a Memphis club in 1956. It was B. B. King, not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


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