As his photo archives prove, Ernest Withers showed up for more than 50 years. While others were loafing or shooting photos of weddings or birthdays, Withers was documenting the lives of musicians, civil rights leaders, children who desegregated schools, ballplayers, and ordinary people.
It wasn't until the last decade or two of his life that he became an icon. With fame came scrutiny. Three years after his death, Mr. Withers (I always thought it was odd when his contemporaries called him "Withers") was in the national news for spying for the FBI. The Commercial Appeal and reporter Marc Perrusquia researched and wrote the story over two years, and they should win a Pulitzer for it.
And Mr. Withers should, and I think ultimately will, be remembered for his great pictures.
He was laboring for the Tri-State Defender when I moved to Memphis, at wages that were probably near subsistence level. As a fellow freelancer, I met him a few times at his old studio near LeMoyne-Owen College. The place was jammed with pictures in every nook and cranny. I needed some stock pictures for a brochure I was doing. This was before Google ripoffs. Mr. Withers was amiable, but he believed in value for value. I think we settled on a price of $200, which seemed like a lot to me then but not so much today when freelancing has been undercut by free.
I can only imagine how hard it was to raise a family of several children on a freelancer's earnings. As a black photographer of the civil rights movement, Mr. Withers had a limited commercial market. He was not likely to be called to take pictures of a wedding in East Memphis where a photographer could easily make several hundred dollars. But he was black, he was out there, he knew stuff, he had a plausible reason for getting into places, he had once been a cop, and therefore he was useful to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.
The documents I have read so far don't make me think his spy work changed history, but on the butterfly wing-flap-to-hurricane theory, who knows? I do know that this is the way a good novelist would write the epic year 1968 in Memphis, with all the players having complicated motives and personas.
Someone — Alistair Cooke? — once said that the whole truth about any of us would shock all the rest of us. So it is for Martin Luther King Jr., Ernest Withers, and anyone who achieves fame and scrutiny.