Ernest Withers

Ernest Withers


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


Home Ernest Withers

Also known as: Ernest C. Withers

Born: 1922

Nationality: American

Ethnicity: African American

Occupation: Photojournalist

Source: Who’s Who Among African Americans, 13th ed. Gale Group, 2000

Address: 333 Beale Street / Memphis, Tennessee 38103

Office Phone: (901) 527-7476



Books by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love / The Measure of a Man Why We Can’t Wait

A Testament of Hope  /  A Knock at Midnight   /  The Papers of  Martin Luther King, Jr., 1948-1963


Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story


*   *   *   *   *


Bio-Sketch of Ernest Withers

Ernest Withers is unique in mid-20th century American photography. Working as a self-employed photographer, he was in a position to record the making of history and to be a participant in the civil rights movement. His subjects also included baseball players of the Diamond League, blues and jazz performers in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Withers documented the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1960s. He also produced a book on Emmett Till’s murder that became a motivating influence for the push towards equal rights.

In the 1950s he also such baseball icons as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. on Beale Street, he photographed the early performances of such celebrities as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin.

Withers photos are here presented  thanks to the permission of ©Ernest C. Withers courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA. 

Wither’s civil rights photographs are known for their immediacy and directness that stems from his use of a normal-focus lens. His nearness to events were not only physical but also ideological. Withers photographed the quiet dignity of Martin Luther king Jr. on one of the desegregated  buses in Montgomery, Alabama as well as the violence that marred the strike of the Sanitation Workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in the midst of the action.

In December of 1956, Ernest Withers traveled to Montgomery to photograph an important moment in the struggle for civil rights.

 For more than a year, black citizens of Montgomery had been boycotting the city’s buses to protect a bus system that not only forced blacks to the back of the bus, but made them give up their seats to white people if there were no more seats available. in 1955, a 43-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in protest against Montgomery’s harsh segregation laws.

Her arrest was the catalyst that the black community needed to organize a protest against these harsh laws. the bus boycott led directly to the founding “of the Southern Christian leadership Conference (SCLC), which became the most influential voice advocating nonviolent confrontation with white racism, and to the rise to prominence of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.”

The bus boycott case made it to the U.s. Supreme Court where Alabama’s state and local laws requiring segregation on public transportation were struck down on November 13, 1956. December 21, 1956 was the first day for desegregated buses in Montgomery.

Withers was there and rode one of the first buses as he waited for Martin Luther King Jr. to arrive. When dr. King boarded the bus along with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Withers was there to document the emotional event.

*   *   *   *   *

Withers photos are here presented  thanks to the permission of ©Ernest C. Withers courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA. 

Withers photos are here presented  thanks to the permission of ©Ernest C. Withers courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA. 

*   *   *   *   *

AWARDS: National News Association, Best Photographer of the Year, 1968

Achievements: Photographs appeared in Time, Newsweek, Ebony, jet, the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Defender, and the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”

Exhibition: “Let Us March On,” The University of Mississippi, 1987

*   *   *   *   *

Ernest Withers  Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85—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. . . . 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.”—Alison J. Peterson  (October 17, 2007) NYTimes

*   *   *   *   *

Memphis FBI agent led cadre of informants that included Ernest Withers—By Marc Perrusquia—December 19, 2010—


Agent William Lawrence’s notes on Ernest Withers—These notes, written by then-retired FBI agent William H. Lawrence in 1978, provide new insight into photographer Ernest Withers’ secret life as an FBI informant. The notes, scribbled on scratch paper, refer to Withers by name and by his informant number — ME 338-R. Lawrence wrote the notes as Congress reviewed FBI surveillance surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination in Memphis. Lawrence died in 1990 at age 70. His family saved the notes and shared them with the newspaper.—


Ernest Withers Exposed—Ernest Withers is synonymous with civil rights history. The celebrated Memphis photographer covered the movement like no other. An insider who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Withers followed the struggle from beginning to end, covering the Emmett Till murder that jump-started the movement in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Little Rock school crisis, the integration of Ole Miss and the 1968 sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis and his death.

But the enterprising Beale Street newsman had a secret – he was an informant who spied on the movement for the FBI. The Commercial Appeal unlocked Withers’ secret, acting on a tip from a former federal official who identified the photographer as a paid political informant working for a notorious FBI program that spied on American citizens in the 1960s.

Reporter Marc Perrusquia filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2008, months after Withers died, seeking his informant file. The file remains sealed, and the newspaper has an appeal pending. Yet Perrusquia was able to piece together elements of Withers’ secret work for the FBI between 1968 and 1970 by obtaining his confidential informant number – ME 338-R – and then locating that number in other FBI reports released under FOIA three decades ago. Data reporter Grant Smith provided invaluable technical assistance, along with hours of labor, to produce and load the Withers document archive onto this page.—


 *   *   *   *   *

Lance “Sweet Willie Wine” Watson—”Prime Minister,” the Invaders, a Black Panther-styled militant group based in Memphis. Affectionately called Withers “my daddy.” Unknown to Watson, Withers routinely reported on him. Reports indicate Withers told FBI agents Watson was a thief and a conman and planned an armed takeover of the LeMoyne-Owen College campus.

Interviewed this year, Watson had no clue. “If he was (an informant) I don’t know anything about it … He would call me his son.”—


Charles Cabbage—Invaders co-founder, 1967. Also close to Withers. Appears often in FBI reports copied to the photographer’s informant file. The reports show Cabbage once passed out leaflets with instructions for making firebombs; dodged the draft; and was involved in prostitution. Interviewed before his death in June, Cabbage said he’d come to suspect Withers.

“Anytime he’d see us, he’d start snapping (photographs). C’mon man. We weren’t that interesting. Why would he take our pictures constantly?”—


Martin Luther King, Jr.—Nobel laureate. Over last 12 years of his life, King interacted often with Withers. The photographer snapped famous photos of King victoriously riding an integrated bus in Montgomery in 1956 and reclining on a bed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1966. FBI reports show Withers tracked King the day before his April 4, 1968, assassination. Withers met King at the Memphis airport, followed him to a strategy meeting, and later told agents about a dinner involving King, Cabbage and young militants.—


William H. Lawrence Withers’ FBI handler. Career FBI agent, first assigned to Memphis, 1945. Directed secret counter-intelligence against Communists, 1950s. Directed five paid informants in late 1960s reporting on sanitation workers’ strike and other racial matters. Testifying before Congress in 1978, Lawrence discussed a trusted, unnamed informant who had “provided information on racial matters generally and the Invaders in particular.” Lawrence died in 1990.—


Gerald Fanion Deputy director, Tennessee Council on Human Relations, 1968. Appears in several FBI reports copied to Withers’ informant file. Those reports attempt to link Fanion to Invaders. One asserts Fanion once bought cigarettes and delivered them to jailed members of the militant group. Another shows agents held an interest in Fanion’s purchase of a liquor store. Records are silent as to whether Fanion was ever a target of FBI counter-intelligence measures or “dirty tricks” at times aimed at militants and their associates. Indicted in federal court, 1977, after FBI dropped domestic spy program, for check kiting. Died in July.—


G.E. Patterson Bishop, Church of God in Christ. In January 1969, Patterson, then a prominent pastor with a popular radio broadcast, landed in FBI files. The report, copied to Withers’ informant file, describes a row between Patterson and Bert Ferguson, white general manager of radio station WDIA, which has a predominately black listening audience. Report says Patterson gave WDIA a bad check, and his Sunday radio broadcasts were taken off the air. Subsequently, Patterson organized a boycott that drew key support from Lance Watson and other young radicals. Patterson died in 2007.

Howell S. Lowe FBI agent. Assisted agent Lawrence in Memphis domestic spy operations, 1968-70. Worked closely with Withers. Wrote frequent reports during volatile sanitation strike, 1968. Testified before Congress in closed session, 1978. Following domestic intelligence stint, worked criminal cases. That includes work in late 1970s on Memphis angles of Gov. Ray Blanton’s cash-for-pardons case, a scandal that included prosecution of Withers. Never publically discussed his connection to Withers. Died Jan. 1.

 James Lawson Minister; co-founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Invited Dr. King to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The day King arrived – Mar. 18, 1968 – FBI agents debriefed Withers. The informant said Lawson, a friend, opposed the Vietnam War; planned to bring left-leaning Milwaukee priest, Father James Groppi, to Memphis; and was planning a personal trip to East Bloc nation of Czechoslovakia. Withers also gave agents a pro-strike newsletter that Lawson produced. Withers told of Lawson’s ties, and differences, to local militants. Now 81, he’s retired in Los Angeles.

O.W. Pickett Real estate agent; city council candidate, 1967, 1971. Identified as a supporter of the Invaders in FBI reports copied to Withers’ informant file. One chronicles Invader takeover of the administration building at LeMoyne-Owen College, Nov. 1968. Notes that Pickett took food and supplies to the occupiers. Pickett was also seen there giving “the Black Power handshake” to Invaders. Another report describes Pickett as a supporter of Invaders founder Charles Cabbage. Later report, 1970, again copied to Withers’ file, notes Pickett was considering running for Congress. Died, 2002.

 *   *   *   *   *

Beale St. museum to celebrate prolific photographer Ernest Withers—By Michael Lollar—September 2, 2010—Ernest Withers became a rookie photographer in the Army during World War II. When his namesake museum opens on Beale Street next month, it will celebrate the legend he became.

Withers died in 2007 at age 85, but his work will return to the street he captured on film with the opening of the Ernest Withers Museum, scheduled Oct. 15 in the studio he occupied at 333 Beale.

The opening on the third anniversary of Withers’ death will take place while the Withers family negotiates with the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress about possible acquisition of the bulk of a collection of more than a million photographs shot during Withers’ 60-year career.

Any acquisition would be structured to allow the Withers family to retain commercial rights to the collection, said Withers’ daughter, Rosalind Withers, trustee of the collection. . . . Withers traveled with King and his entourage during the civil rights movement, and with James Meredith on his “March Against Fear” in 1966. Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, organized the march to prove “that a black man could walk through Mississippi” without being harassed. Ten miles into the 225-mile march from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., Meredith was shot.

Withers photographed black people smiling as they registered to vote for the first time. He photographed them attending the Memphis Zoo on the one day of the week they were allowed to visit. He photographed Army tanks stationed on a boarded-up Beale Street after the murder of King. He photographed young white men carrying a poster that said, “Segregation or War.”—


*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *


Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

*   *   *   *   *

Age of Silver: Encounters with Great Photographers

By John Loengard

Age of Silver is iconic American photographer John Loengard’s ode to the art form to which he dedicated his life. Loengard, a longtime staff photographer and editor for LIFE magazine and other publications, spent years documenting modern life for the benefit of the American public. Over the years he trained his camera on dignitaries, artists, athletes, intellectuals, blue and whitecollar workers, urban and natural landscapes, manmade objects, and people of all types engaged in the act of living. In Age of Silver, Loengard gathers his portraits of some of the most important photographers of the last half-century, including Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, Man Ray, Richard Avedon, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and many, many others. Loengard caught them at home and in the studio; posed portraits and candid shots of the artists at work and at rest.   Complimenting these revealing, expertly composed portraits are elegant photographs of the artists holding their favorite or most revered negatives. This extra dimension to the project offers an inside peek at the artistic process and is a stark reminder of the physicality of the photographic practice at a time before the current wave of digital dominance. There is no more honest or faithful reproduction of life existent in the world of image making than original, untouched silver negatives.   Far from an attempt to put forth a singular definition of modern photographic practice, this beautifully printed, duotone monograph instead presents evidence of the unique vision and extremely personal style of every artist pictured. Annie Leibovitz is quoted in her caption as once saying, “I am always perplexed when people say that a photograph has captured someone. A photograph is just a piece of them in a moment. It seems presumptuous to think you can get more than that.” —PowerhouseBooks

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






update 2 March 2012




Home  Literature & Arts

Related files: Ernest Withers  / Carrie Mae Weems  /  Julian Dimock  / Jerry Taliaferro  / Spring Ulmer   J. Nash Porter  / The Willie Harris Collection  /  Eugene Redmond  

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.