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Museum celebrates photographer Ernest Withers


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 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.

Workmen were spray painting track lighting last week, preparing it for installation earlier this week as part of the last phase of construction. Fifty-nine black-and-white photographs were mounted on the walls, focusing on Withers’ role as a photographer and documentarian of life in segregated Memphis. He also documented the blues music of Beale, including an iconic photo of B.B. King with Elvis Presley, and shot important photographs of the Negro Baseball League.

One of the photographer’s granddaughters, Nzinga Withers, a dispatcher for the Memphis Police Department and secretary of the board of the Withers estate, pointed out one of her favorites. It is a candid photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shot in the doorway of his room at the Lorraine Motel. Beside it is a photo of King relaxing in his room during one visit to Memphis on behalf of striking sanitation workers.

“He (Withers) was a very strong man to see and take the pictures he did and to actually get beaten up doing it,” she said.

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.”

In one panel about a collection of the photographs, Massachusetts College of Art curator Michele Furst acknowledges “Ernest Withers’ obsession to document.”

The Commercial Appeal