The Civil Rights Movement and Memphis Music Captured Through the Lens of Ernest Withers

Withers Collection Museum & Gallery

Withers Collection Museum & Gallery: A Stop On Your Memphis Black History Tour

We know Beale Street for its nightlife, live music, great drinks and tasty eats—but there’s more to this iconic street in Memphis. Among the clubs and shops, you’ll find a cozy, intimate art gallery dedicated to the prolific career of one of America’s most important photographers: Dr. Ernest C. Withers. For more than 60 years, this Memphian captured poignant moments from African American life, including sports, blues music on Beale, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Explore the moving photography work of Dr. Withers at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery at 333 Beale Street, in the very same location that Withers used as his studio for decades. Feel the history not only in the enormous collection of images on display, but in the very room you’ll stand in at the Gallery.
Withers traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., photographed the Little Rock Nine, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1956, and the sanitation workers strike in Memphis. Not many know that Withers deeply loved music and baseball. Through the gallery you’ll see a series of Negro League Baseball portraits, photos from the soul and R&B music era in Memphis (including Elvis) and of course, Beale Street legend, B.B. King

Who was Ernest Withers?

 

Ernest Withers was born in Memphis in 1922 and began photographing daily life in the segregated city as a young man, before honing his skills at the Army School of Photography. After a brief stint as a Memphis police officer, Withers began an impressive, decades-long career as a photojournalist. His coverage of the Emmett Till trial in 1955 was a catalyst of the civil rights movement in the United States, and his subsequent work was published in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Ebony magazine, and countless others.

Withers’s best-known images include the iconic black-and-white photo of a crowd of striking sanitation workers with bold “I AM A MAN” signs, the trial of Emmett Till, the funeral of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and countless images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including Dr. King’s funeral.

He also photographed figures like Jackie Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and many Memphis musicians; he was the official Stax Records photographer for twenty years. Withers also captured the daily lives of Black Memphians—parties, family gatherings, celebrations, and protests.

His work is in the Library of Congress, in exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and at the Withers Collection in Memphis, Tennessee.

Visiting The Withers Collection

Today, Withers’s daughter Rosalind manages one of the largest photo collections amassed by a single individual (it is estimated that he captured more than 1.8 million photos in his 60 years). She is responsible for daily operations of the Withers photographic Art Museum and Gallery.

The Withers Collection is open for tours by appointment only due to COVID-19. Call (901) 523-2344 for ticket information and to schedule a visit. 

For more information about the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, see their official website.