Ernest Withers, who died this week at age 85, was a giant of American photography. Like a real-life Zelig, Withers seemingly was everywhere — documenting the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Negro baseball leagues, jazz and blues greats, scenes of Beale Street in its pre-tourist heyday, weddings, funerals, and parties. Withers captured African-American life in the South like no other.
He photographed Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Aretha Franklin, to name just a very few of his notable subjects. Withers was in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, documenting the bus strike in the wake of Rosa Parks' arrest. He rode buses with Martin Luther King Jr. His famous "I AM A MAN" photos of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike are in American history books, as well they should be.
Withers was a modest, soft-spoken man who tended to his large and loving family to the same noble degree that he did to his photography. And like many Memphis icons, he was probably taken somewhat for granted. But Withers never stopped working. In recent years, he could be seen moving through the crowd at social events, charging revelers a modest fee for instant photos of themselves. It's likely that many of those who bought a picture had no idea they'd just purchased a piece by one of the 20th century's greatest photographers.
He will be missed, like few others. His legacy will live on in the photos he created.
And if there are any biographers out there looking for a subject whose life could fill several volumes, we've got your man.
Another Mock Issue
In their zeal to oppose the reelection effort of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, certain of his adversaries went out of their way to mischaracterize Cohen's vote for hate-crimes legislation. The congressman was verbally flagellated as a would-be muzzler of ministers who might want to oppose homosexuality from their pulpits.
Fortunately, counsels have arisen within the African-American religious community to rebut the accusations against the bill and against Cohen. But now another campaign has been launched against the congressman — this time for his refusal to support a congressional resolution affirming that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against an Armenian minority in the years following World War I.
We do not dispute the allegation concerning events that are now almost a century old. Nor do we contend that the lobbying effort on behalf of this resolution, led locally by one Dany Beylerian, an ethnic Armenian, is anything but sincere.
But, like Cohen, we find the resolution to be ill-timed. Why aim a provocative accusation at an American ally, Turkey, when that government, considerably evolved from its Ottoman past, is not known to be planning any such malice?
And why should a congressman from Memphis vote so as to insult a currently unoffending nation that is the 2008 Memphis in May honoree? Yes, Cohen, as a white Southener, sponsored a resolution apologizing for slavery. In the same way, it is up to the Turks themselves to acknowledge their darker history.