Looking at Ernest Withers, Then and Now

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Ernest Withers in 2003
  • JB
  • Ernest Withers in 2003
Confusion, pure and simple, has been the dominant motif in the things said and written by people who knew Ernest Withers since the appearance in The Commercial Appeal Sunday of that extraordinary story by investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia documenting the legendary photojournalist’s undercover work for the FBI.

It is not a simple matter of having to revise one’s estimate of Withers as a professional or as a man. It is a matter of wondering whether such a revision is necessary, or, if necessary, of how thorough-going it should be.

The thousands of pictures he took — iconic, perfectly framed, and yet perfectly natural — not only documented the African-American culture of Withers’ time — the music, the fire and the algebra of black life, and, above all, the revolt against white domination — but these images did as much as anything else to sustain and feed and energize the ongoing revolution.

That Withers turns out to have been a spy on that very revolution is no small revelation, and it will take a while to digest what that means. Withers differs significantly from Benedict Arnold, the gallant American general who won the signal battle of Saratoga for the American revolution, then rejected and betrayed the very cause he had fought for. Withers never stopped chronicling change — and, in the process, fostering it.

As far as we can tell, he never stopped believing in that change — though the case can be made that he was an eavesdropper on the civil rights movement, and that his photographs were but one aspect of that, and his reports to the FBI, for which he was paid, were but another. In that scenario, Withers could be construed as a distanced and disinterested onlooker.

Furthering that notion is the fact that Withers, like any other chronicler of events, like any other journalist, was continually exposed to all sides of his subject matter, including their undersides, and had a highly developed sense of gossip, which ultimately could be channeled and exploited by others for their own ends.

To those who knew him, he was free with his confidences; to others, it now seems clear, he may have charged for them, and this is a matter of genuine concern.

Appended below is the article I wrote for the Flyer upon his death, having got to know him a bit. I regarded that as a great fortune then and am unlikely to change my mind about it now or henceforth, no matter how the jury of his peers finally rules.

I will say this: He once told me a somewhat detailed and much earthier version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s intended evening itinerary for the date on which he was killed than the one which has entered the history books and the oft-repeated reminiscences of friends. At the time I wondered where he got his information; now, I wonder how much he told the FBI.

But this is the same man who had himself been a pathfinder for black progress, integrating the Memphis police force with a handful of other African Americans. And, again, the pictures speak for themselves: They are anything but morally neutral and uncommitted.

I suspect that, unless it can be demonstrated that Withers’ service to the FBI resulted in serious and verifiable harm to the principals and principles of civil rights — and, frankly, the jury will have to remain out on that one for a while — his reputation will survive the current seismic shock and settle back into the large and lofty and secure niche it occupied at the time of his death in 2007.

Remembering Ernest Withers (Flyer, October 24, 2007)

One of the great serendipities I've experienced as a journalist was the decision by former Memphis Magazine editor Tim Sampson back in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the death in Memphis of Dr. Martin Luther King, to use as the centerpiece of an anniversary issue an archival piece of mine, along with pictures by the great photographer Ernest Withers.

Uncannily often, Withers' photographs directly illustrated specific scenes of my narrative, which had been written originally on the day after the assassination and concerned the events of that traumatic day. It was a little like being partnered with Michelangelo, and I was more than grateful.

The publication of that issue led to an invitation from Beale Street impresario John Elkington for Withers and me to collaborate on a book having to do with the history of Beale Street, and the two of us subsequently spent a good deal of time going through the treasure trove that was Withers' photographic inventory.

For various reasons, most of them having to do with funding, the book as envisioned never came to pass (though years later Elkington published a similar volume), but the experience led to an enduring friendship.

One day, when I was having car trouble, Ernest gave me a ride home, from downtown to Parkway Village, the still predominantly white area where I was living at the time, just beginning a demographic changeover. At the time it appeared as though it might become a success of bi-racial living, and we talked for some time about that prospect.

That very evening, Ernest was a panelist on the old WKNO show, Informed Sources, and, instead of focusing on the subject at hand, whatever it was, chose to discourse at length on the sociology of Parkway Village. Watching at home, I was delighted - though the host and other panelists, intent on discussing another subject, one of those pro-forma public-affairs things, may not have been.

They should have been. This was the man, remember, who documented the glory and the grief of our city and our land as both passed from one age into another, which was required to be its diametrical opposite, no less. Ernest saw what was happening in Parkway Village as a possible trope for that, and whatever he had to say about it needed to be listened to.

Sadly, of course, the neighborhood in question was not able to maintain the blissfully integrated status that Ernest Withers, an eternally hopeful one despite his ever-realistic eye, imagined for it.

As various eulogists have noted, last week and this, Withers not only chronicled the civil rights era but the local African-American sportscape and the teeming music scene emanating from, an influenced by black Memphians.

He was also, as we noted editorially last week, a family man, and it had to be enormously difficult for him that, in the course of a single calendar year while he was in his 70s (he was 85 at the time of his death), he buried three of his own children.

Among my souvenirs is a photograph I arranged to have taken of Ernest Withers with my youngest son Justin and my daughter-in-law Ellen, both residents of Atlanta, on an occasion when they were visiting Memphis a few years back. Happy as they were with the memento, the younger Bakers expressed something of a reservation.

What they'd really wanted, explained Ellen, a museum curator who was even then, in fact, planning for a forthcoming Withers exhibit in Atlanta, was a picture of the two of them taken by the master.

Silly of me not to have realized that. To be in a picture by Ernest Withers was to become part of history - a favor he bestowed on legions of struggling ordinary folk as well on the high and mighty of our time.

See also ”Ernest Withers Was There” and ”Ernest Withers Reconsidered.”

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