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The Importance of Having Been Ernest

Mourners celebrate the acclaimed photographer's local focus and global impact.



Mourners of Ernest Withers filled the Pentecostal Temple Institutional Church of God in Christ downtown Saturday afternoon to celebrate the homegoing of the world-renowned photographer.

Withers, who died October 15th at the age 85, left a vast body of work that chronicled the Beale Street blues and the birth of rock-and-roll in 1950s Memphis, and the Civil Rights movement across America.

At the service, friends, family members, and public officials eulogized Withers with a celebratory tone.

Afrocentric spiritualist Ekpe Abioto, dressed in ceremonial boubou, tapped a Congo drum and whistled through panpipes as he led the Withers family into church and down the aisle of the expansive, blue-carpeted sanctuary.

From the pulpit, Abioto delivered the libation, assuring the crowd that "death is only a fulfillment of life." He asked that both the oldest and youngest people in the room — a COGIC minister in his 90s and a two-month-old baby — identify themselves and be recognized.

Trumpeter Mickey Gregory, a former Stax Records session player and Beale Street club entertainer, represented Withers' ties to the music industry, performing the popular Thomas A. Dorsey gospel composition "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton called Withers a "giant and a genius," expressing his gratitude to God "that I, Willie Herenton, had the privilege of kneeling at [Withers'] feet.

"They don't put just anybody's obituary in The New York Times," he reminded the audience.

The Reverend Samuel Kyles also eulogized Withers: "It is said that a drop of water can knock holes in stone, not by violence, but by oft-falling." Like that drop of water on the stone, Withers' "camera knocked holes in the stones of ignorance one click at a time."

Beale Street developer John Elkington promised "there will always be a Withers gallery on Beale." He said he once asked Withers if he'd been afraid photographing civil rights-era riots and episodes of police brutality.

"No," Withers told Elkington. "I was too busy working."

Finally, family members evoked tender and personal memories of Withers playing on the floor and watching cartoons with his grandchildren. "He saw the world through our eyes," Withers' granddaughter, Esi Sawyer, recalled.

Those gathered, and the photographer's many admirers, would agree that we're better for having seen the world through his.

A procession down Beale Street, past the last of Withers' six offices located on the strip over the years, and interment at Elmwood Cemetery followed. Dorothy, Withers' wife of 65 years, four of their eight children, and numerous grandchildren survive him.

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